“Family Matters” by Rohinton Mistry

From the author of "A Fine Balance," a Dickensian story of a Bombay family whose members battle society to gain true love and worldly success.

Topics: Books,

Rohinton Mistry writes sweeping, realist family dramas that recall such 19th century writers as Tolstoy and Dickens. They’re the kind of books that the West can’t produce anymore, because the tensions between family responsibilities and private passions, social expectations and individual dreams, have largely gone slack with the decay of strict traditions. In India, however — a country hurling toward modernity while remaining bound to communal orthodoxies — the clashes and struggles that have fed much of the best classic literature are still roiling, resulting in terrible pain and wonderful books.

One of the best of these books is Mistry’s 1995 novel “A Fine Balance,” the expansive, devastating story of four people, misfits in their communities, finding solace together while battling to survive during the “emergency” Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared in 1975, a period of intense repression against dissidents and the poor. More than a year after reading it, I still lose my composure thinking of its ending. Mistry writes with an enveloping, heart-tearing compassion, and much of the novel feels almost whimsical, as isolated people make soulful alliances and subtle acts of kindness counterbalance hellish violence. But in the end, goodness is no match for political furies. As much as it recalls the greatest classic English-language literature, “A Fine Balance” also has a very Indian sort of fatalism, showing how impossible it is for individuals to triumph over a casually malevolent system that’s far stronger than they are.

Mistry’s newest novel, “Family Matters,” isn’t as resonant or as powerful as “A Fine Balance” — few books are — but it’s moving all the same, occasionally achieving an incandescent tenderness that never lapses into bathos. While the former book encompassed Hindu, Muslim and Parsi communities in cities and villages, this time Mistry’s canvas is much more intimate, dealing with a single Parsi clan living on the edge of the middle class in contemporary Bombay. As in “A Fine Balance,” though, the family in “Family Matters” can’t escape brutal social strictures, no matter how valiantly they try.

As the book begins, retired professor Nariman Vakeel lives with his unmarried middle-aged stepchildren, the shrill, overbearing Coomy and her timid brother, Jal. Coomy behaves like a hysterical headmistress, crafting rules to govern every aspect of the elderly Nariman’s life. She’s fastidious in caring for him but also cruel, still angry and aching from a long-ago wrong he did her mother, Yasmin.

That wrong — and the pressures that precipitated it — underlies the family’s strife. As a young man, Nariman had loved a Goan Christian woman named Lucy, but his orthodox Parsi father fought the match, and after 11 years, Nariman gave in to family pressure and married the widowed Yasmin. His feelings for Lucy never left him, earning him the hatred of his new family and the guilt of seeing both his wife and his beloved destroyed.

This story unfolds in flashes, interwoven with the increasingly grinding drudgery of the family’s daily life. When, against Coomy’s advice, Nariman goes for a walk and breaks his ankle, his stepchildren have to care for him, a task they find overwhelming. Mistry spares the reader nothing, detailing episodes of incontinence, the indignity of bedpans, all the draining tasks of attending to a helpless, deteriorating man. Thus when Coomy contrives a nasty plan to foist Nariman onto her younger half-sister Roxana, the only child Nariman had with Coomy’s mother, it’s hard to hate her too much; we’ve shared her exhaustion and frustration.

Through Coomy’s plotting, Nariman moves into the tiny flat Roxana shares with her husband, Yezad, and sons Murad and Jehangir — a sweet, sensitive child whose perspective becomes increasingly central as the book progresses. The necessities of Nariman’s care strain Roxana’s relationship with her husband, a warm, witty man saddled with a vicious temper and smoldering disappointments. Having failed in his attempt to emigrate to Canada, Yezad is stuck in a retail job that’s beneath him, his college degree worthless in a world where only computer skills are in demand.

Contemptuous of Bombay’s corruption, he finds himself tempted in that direction when his family forgoes meat to pay for his father-in-law’s medicines. Yezad’s resentment of Nariman occasionally gives way to sadism, as when he refuses to give the old man the bottle he needs to urinate, forbidding his sons to help either. But he’s not a bad man, which makes his cruelty all the more painful.

Mistry has an amazing way of setting up ordinary lives scarred by tragedy, then illuminating them with moments of merciful beauty. He writes simply, but by accumulating the small details of his characters’ existence, he creates a visceral feel for their loves, humiliations and little victories. A scene where Yezad, overcome with sympathy, decides to trim his father-in-law’s nails and shave his face becomes a quiet redemption.

Much earlier in the story, the moment that destroys Nariman’s willpower and brings him back to his love for Lucy is cinematically sublime. Nariman had pursued her, in defiance of her strict family, by simply standing outside her window during the monsoon, gazing up at her, ignoring her brothers’ threats. When their affair ends and Nariman marries, Lucy follows him around, but for two years he works to ignore and avoid her.

“Then the evening visits began,” Mistry writes. “To Yasmin, they did not pose a threat at first, or even an inconvenience … But Lucy on the footpath brought back the past with a force that left him shaken … Lucy, standing motionless, her face turned towards his window, had accomplished what he had dreaded — filled him with a torrent of memories from their early days together.” It’s a simple image, but one bursting with regret and romance.

Not all of “Family Matters” works so well. The scheme Yezad constructs to advance his career is ludicrous, as is the coincidence that leaves him feeling implicated in his boss’s murder. Similarly, the pair of deaths that set the story’s resolution in motion are far too convenient. But if “Family Matters” isn’t as tightly plotted as “A Fine Balance,” it shares with it a luminous compassion, an abundance of life and piercing moments that remain etched in its reader’s memory.

Our next pick: A stranded Sarajevan offers a hilarious and wretched view of American society

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>