Rohinton Mistry’s third novel, and third Booker Prize shortlister, is smaller in scope than his earlier two. In a much more intimate setting, it deals with fateful choices by three generations of men in a Parsi family in modern Mumbai, the difficulties of caring for elder family members and the role of tradition and religion as both a shackle and as a source of identity for members of a minority in decline.
Nariman Vakeel is a 79 year old widower with Parkinson’s who lives with his two middle-aged step-children in an increasingly dilapidated penthouse apartment in Mumbai, India. Despite a life full of injustices, heartbreak and tragedy; Nariman is a generous, forgiving and understanding soul. Even though his step children bear decades of unforgiving resentment towards him, that they unload on him daily, particularly for the death of their mother, he bears it gently and without reciprocity.
Nariman and his family are Parsi’s – a minority ethnicity descended from Persians who came to India fleeing repression in their homeland following the 7th century Islamic Arabic invasion. With the arrival of the British East India Company, Parsi’s left rural areas for employment and educational opportunities offered by the British and found themselves playing a key role in the development of colonial and modern India. Though always a small minority, Parsi’s were disproportionately well-represented in government and commerce as well as many social and cultural areas including cricket. With the investment of Bombay by the East India Company, Parsi were heavily involved in the development of Bombay as a major city and remained an influential core of the city for generations.
By the time Nariman was a young man however, the Parsi’s age of opportunity was long over and the community was experiencing a marked decline. His father was a committed conservative who believed in preserving the purity of their ethnicity and adherence to their religion, Zoroastrianism, in order to ensure the survival of their people. Nariman though, was never particularly beholden to religion. Nor was he interested in marrying for any consideration other than love.
His affair with a Goan woman, Lucy, therefore brings considerable acrimony between father and son. After an 11 year relationship, Lucy and Nariman conclude that their families will never allow them to live and love in peace and they decide to end their hopeless relationship. Nariman, ever the martyr to his own wishes, agrees to marry a Parsi woman of his parent’s choice; Yasmin, a Parsi widow with two children from her previous marriage: Jal and Coomer. Nariman and Yasmin soon have a child of their own; Roxana. Lucy, however does not possess Nariman’s ability to suppress, submit and move on. She begins haunting Nariman, distressing his marriage and tormenting him into facing impossible choices with tragic consequences.
Though he faces the bitterness of his step-children every day, and his old age brings considerable health problems, Nariman is mostly at peace with his past and remains jovial and optimistic. But when an accident leaves him bed-ridden, his step daughter Coomer takes the opportunity to push responsibility for his care onto Roxana. Nariman’s care soon becomes a difficult burden on Roxana and her family in their tiny apartment. As well as the lack of space and the awkwardness of nursing her father, the financial burden is considerable.
The reader may be forgiven for thinking that it is Nariman’s life story that dominates the novel, particularly because of the frequent flashbacks to the tragedy of his youthful lover life in the early parts of the book. But Family Matters covers three generations of Parsi men in the family. With Nariman slowly recovering from his injury in his daughter’s family’s apartment, the focus shifts to his son-in-law Yezad who is the central character of the novel.
Before the accident, Yezad and Nariman had a good relationship. With similar senses of humour, and with neither being particularly traditional or religious, they poke fun at Coomer’s piety. After the accident, once Nariman becomes a burdensome presence in his home, Yezad cannot maintain the filial relationship with his father-in-law.
Working at a sporting-goods store, Yezad does not earn a substantial living and the cost of caring for Nariman is severely straining the family finances. Though he is on very good terms with his boss, Yezad is uncomfortable with bringing up the topic of a long-overdue promotion and pay raise. Instead the increased stress sees him uncharacteristically lashing out at his wife and sons while being unsympathetic to the condition of his father-in-law.
Meanwhile, the family’s financial troubles do not escape the notice of Yezad’s son, Jehangir, who considers compromising his integrity to make a little schoolyard cash. In desperation, Yezad is also contemplating dangerous schemes, even to the extent of plotting to gamble with his family’s future and embezzle from his best friend and employer. The salvation for the poisoning of his soul from such experiences comes from an unlikely source as Yezad rediscovers his Zoroastrian faith and his Parsi traditions.
Reading Family Matters brings an end my reading of Mistry for now. His three novels were published over 11 years from 1991 to 2002 but it has now been 12 years since Family Matters, the third, was published. I had high expectations for Family Matters after reading his second novel (A Fine Balance) and finding it to be noticeably more accomplished than his admirable first (Such a Long Journey). I had hoped for a similar leap in performance here. But comparisons are difficult and perhaps slightly unfair.
Where the first two are set in mid-1970’s Bombay, Family Matters is set closer to its publication year of 2002. Though the first two novels also concern the lives of ordinary people in difficult circumstances and faced with difficult choices; they are swept along by the far larger events of the Indian Emergency. They therefore have a scale and message that far exceeds that of the central plot and characters. Family Matters is not set in the Emergency, or within any similarly grand context, and its scale is necessarily diminished. It is a far more familial and intimate story as befitting the double entendre of the tile.
Nevertheless there is some common ground with the previous novels. The clash between a traditionalist, authoritarian father and a son wanting independence and self-determination is a feature of Mistry’s previous novels. Here it presents itself again in the flashbacks of Nariman’s youth and his relationship with his father. But the clash with tradition takes another turn in Family Matters as the next generation returns to a new found respect for tradition and religion. Early in the novel, Yezad, like his father-in-law, is not very sentimental for the traditions of the past but by the end, not only does he find solace there but he is determined to instruct his two sons in their traditions as well.
Also like the earlier novels, eccentric minor characters add considerable colour and humour as well as informing some of the themes. There’s Edul Munshi; a neighbour who also fancies himself as a talented handyman. His impressive equipment, ability to quote profound insights, in contrast to his bungled attempts at home improvement, make him an amalgamation of both Tim Taylor and his neighbour Wilson. Daisy Ichhaporia, a violinist in the Bombay Symphony Orchestra visits the bedridden Nariman frequently and brings considerably joy to his otherwise painful existence. Villie Cardmaster, also known as, the Matka Queen, is an aging spinster known to engage in illegal gambling; the winning numbers delivered to her prophetically. Working in a book mart next door to Yezad’s employer is Vilas Rane. Vilas sidelines as a letter-writer for illiterates, most of whom have come to Bombay from villages in search of work.
And Vilas, writing and reading the ongoing drama of family matters, the endless tragedy and comedy, realised that collectively, the letters formed a pattern only he was privileged to see.
Most of all there is Vikram Kapur, Yezad’s boss. Vikram’s hobby is collecting old photographs of Bombay. He is deeply nostalgic for the city of old; a cosmopolitan Victorian-era city built by the British, administered by Parsi’s and a major hub for trade between Asia and Europe. A cleaner, smaller, city before the slums, the organised crime and the Hindu Nationalist politics. Like many who dream of yesteryear, it may be a Bombay that only exists in his mind but he is passionate enough to flirt with the idea of running for office himself, though he knows his election chances are slim. Vikram’s nostalgia, like Yezad’s return to his faith, colours a respect for the past that is one of the major themes of the novel.
There were a couple of things I did not like about the novel. As mentioned, the stress on Yezad once his father-in-law is placed in his family’s care and the effect it has on their finances, is considerable. As well as lashing out, he engages in dangerous ventures which risk devastating consequences. Yet, I don’t think Yezad ever admits remorse for the chain of events he sets into play, even to himself. His return to his faith perhaps betrays a guilty conscience as it seems to give him a sense of peace that he is seeking. But without taking responsibility his rehabilitation is incomplete.
There is also a passage which appears to taking a dig at Salman Rushdie:
Indian authors writing about that period [1947 and Partition], whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors…
This could, of course, simply reflect the opinion of the character whose thought it is (Yezad) rather than the author. After all, it is not uncommon to hear outspoken Indian critics accuse writers and film-makers, especially those who have won international acclaim, for getting their historical facts wrong or of giving an incomplete picture. India is so large and diverse that it is impossible to give a comprehensive assessment on any event and inevitably a story-teller has to choose a point of view. There is also a passage where Mistry appears to be making a remark aimed at critics of his previous novel, A Fine Balance. A character mentions reading a brilliant novel set during the Emergency and that it brought out the critics who tried to dismiss the events described in the novel even to the extent of defending the Emergency.
For a writer to use a novel and its character’s voices to take a jab at other writers and his critics is nothing new or even unusual and Mistry has done enough here to mean that we can’t be sure if that is what he is doing, but it is not something I care for. But these are minor issues and do not detract much from an otherwise fine novel.
As mentioned earlier, all three of Mistry’s novels were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is tempting to think he has been unlucky to not take out one given the nature of such competitions but three shortlistings is an impressive achievement in itself. Having not read any of the other novels that competed with his first two novels, I can’t really say whether he was a real chance. However, I imagine A Fine Balance, which I consider to be the best of the three, would have been very competitive for the 1996 prize which also included Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and was won, with a little controversy, by Graham Swift’s Last Orders. I look forward to reading both of those and placing A Fine Balance in context. As for the 2002 prize, I have read the eventual winner – Yaan Martel’s much loved Life of Pi. I can’t deny that Life of Pi was an excellent work and a more enjoyable read than Family Matters. But, as I mentioned when comparing Family Matters to Mistry’s other novels, while its themes may seem more ordinary, they are also far more personal, intimate, human and relatable. You can’t help but feel that Family Matters may be more literary than the fun and fantastical Life of Pi.
Those relatable and universal themes include the role of tradition and religion in both constraining the lives those forced to live within its restrictions, while also providing identity and continuity for a marginalised minority. Of the respect and care for elders and the burden that can place on a struggling family. And of the stresses and consequences of difficult moral choices made by husbands, fathers and sons, in desperate circumstances, in a culture where men are still the head of the household.