January 7, 2007
Rohinton Mistry: Family Matters
Family Matters took me almost a full week – a long reading for me – to get through its 500-page length. It’s a very curious book, not least because anything else this long and detailed would automatically feel like an epic. Mistry’s story, however, remains intimate, and restricts itself to the immediate members of a family.
Nariman Vakeel is 79 years old and suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He lives with his stepson Jal and stepdaughter Coomy in the not entirely aptly named Chateau Felicity apartment block in Bombay. (Or is it Mumbai? One subplot of the book concerns the strongarm efforts by Shiv Sena Hindu nationalists to force inhabitants to stop using the anglicised form of the city’s name.) Jal and Coomy are protective of their stepfather, who tries to maintain his independence. One day when out alone Nariman falls, breaking his ankle, and for recuperation is sent to stay with his biological daughter Roxana and her husband Yezad. Coomy, glad to be rid of the burden, does everything she can to prevent Nariman from returning. This is despite the financial strains being put on Yezad and Roxana in supporting him, which leads to both Yezad and his son drifting into lawlessness to raise money, and ultimately to tragedy.
Despite the book’s recounting of often miserable events and lives, the tone is kept fairly light and almost in a stereotypical vain of Indian literature by English-speaking authors: a certain density and musicality of prose which never becomes turgid or unreadable. The characters are beautifully outlined, not least the secondary figures like Yezad’s employer Mr Kapur, and the disastrously bad handyman in the flat below Jal and Coomy.
But there’s something missing from Family Matters. Mistry’s attention to detail is sometimes akin to an inability to see the wood for the trees: the details are all beautifully done, and well worked out, and pleasing to read, but the story suffers. It’s sluggish and frequently seems inconsequential. Nothing very much happens other than what the blurb tells us – and then, suddenly and without warning, as though he recognised the need to shake things up a bit, around page 400 Mistry kills off five characters in quick succession. This has the effect of making everything afterwards seem like an epilogue – though there are still a hundred pages to go – and of letting the air in, and miraculously the book becomes much more alive from then on, despite an implausible lack of grief by the bereaved. But even so, at the end, when one character is veering toward religious fundamentalism, it feels as though there is much more to say and the ending seems arbitrary.
So Family Matters is a puzzle: grim but not depressing, long but not big, beautifully written but somewhat dull, and frequently admirable but rarely lovable.