"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.

Published October 10, 2002 10:43PM (EDT)

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

By Michelle Goldberg

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

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------