Family Matters
Rohinton Mistry
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Family Matters

Rohinton Mistry
Alfred A. Knopf
448 pages
September 2002
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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If the small, knit tight, well-educated and mostly affluent Parsis (a pure Persian race, which immigrated and settled in India) ever needed an eloquent and passionate spokesperson, they need to look no further than Rohinton Mistry. Born and raised in Bombay, where the majority of the Parsi community live, Mistry is a critically acclaimed, award-winning, internationally famous author. He now lives in Toronto, where he moved to in the early 1970s, and he uses his pen to explore and highlight the eccentricities, the culture, the heritage and the legacy of his own race. He also uses his books to condemn the political corruption and religious fundamentalism in contemporary India, one of the world’s largest democracies.

That said, his third book, Family Matters, is perhaps the most universal of them, as it focuses on a domestic crisis of one family and how they cope with it. Although the book is set in Bombay in the 1990s, it could be anywhere in the world. It opens with the main character, Nariman Vakeel, already in the clutches of Parkinson’s disease. Nariman is the father of three grown children: unmarried and unemployed stepson Jal, quiet and unassuming; stepdaughter Coomy, domineering, bossy and pushy; and daughter Roxana. While the stepchildren live with and take care of him in an apartment in the spacious Chateau Felicity building which he has bequeathed to them, Roxana lives with her husband, Yezad, and two sons, Jehangir and Murad, in a newer apartment bought by Nariman, a fact that Coomy, envious and bitter, never stops pointing out.

Perhaps it’s because the sprawling seven-room palatial apartment is rapidly degenerating, almost parallel to Nariman’s health, while their two-roomed small is relatively modern and newly purchased. Foreshadowing of the plot and imminent crisis is hinted at in the first chapter. Confined to his bedroom and bored, Nariman seeks solace in his evening walks, which represent to him "bustling life" and are "like air for starving lungs, after the stale emptiness of the flat." These walks are therapeutic, "magical" and enchanting like a circus or "a magic show." Using his umbrella as a walking stick, he saunters past the corner where vegetable vendors congregate and "their baskets and boxes, overflowing with greens and legumes and fruits and tubers, transformed the corner into a garden." And from "time to time" he bends to touch the "voluptuous onions, glistening tomatoes, purple brinjals and earthy carrots" as they "hallowed the dusk with their color and fragrance." He sees a man selling bananas and the "bunches were stacked high and heavy upon his outstretched arms," and at the flower stall, two men "sat like musicians, weaving strands of marigold, garlands of jasmine and lily and rose, their fingers picking, plucking, knotting, playing a floral melody…"

He needs this time alone; he is a man haunted by his tragic past. In his youth he loved a woman whom he could not marry because she was not a Parsi and his parents would never stand for it. So he marries a widow with two children and even though they have a child together and he tries to make his marriage work, it never does. All their lives are ruined and he remains haunted by what could have been, should have been and what-ifs for the rest of his life. But walks mean that Nariman, afflicted with Parkinson and osteoporosis, could hurt himself seriously if he has a fall – a thought that is anathema to Coomy, who yells at him daily as she watches him prepare himself. She does not help him nor does she offer to accompany him on his walks. Several times he has come home with abrasions on his elbow and foreman and a limp. One day he breaks his ankle and, with it encased in a cast, he must depend on Coomy and Jal for his most basic requirements; they must clean, shave and wash him and, since they can’t take him to the bathroom, they buy a commode which they keep next to his bed.

The smell of his urine, feces and the body odor is more than Coomy can bear. In a gesture both mean-spirited and cowardly, she deviously hatches a plan. She quickly bundles the old man into an ambulance and takes him to Roxana’s small apartment. Depositing him on a couch in their living room, which becomes his home for the next few months, changes the lives of everyone. They struggle, they grow, they learn and they endure. With painstaking detail, Mistry draws the conflict within each character: the guilt, compassion, family obligation versus desire for independence, and the building of human relationships. He also holds a mirror to the characters' consciences, so that they can acknowledge what they are and what they portray to the world.

Family Matters triumphs because its characters are alive and because it captures the moods and conflicting emotions of three generations. This book further seals Mistry’s reputation of excellence and brilliance. Mistry’s first book, Such a Long Journey, received, among many other awards, the 1992 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best Book of the Year. His second book, A Fine Balance, was one of Oprah’s last book club selections and was honored for its literary merit for two consecutive years: in 1995, it won the second annual Giller Prize, and the next year the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction.

© 2002 by Sonia Chopra for Curled Up With a Good Book

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