Rohinton Mistry

"Family Matters"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka DEC 12, 2002)

Family Matters by Rohinton MistryI could barely wait to read this new novel by Rohinton Mistry. I remember sitting utterly transfixed by his last novel, A Fine Balance, while riding on a bus through Europe. The scenery rushed by, my new husband sat next to me, and I was absorbed in my thoughts about the book and about how profoundly delicate life can be.

Read excerptReceiving a review copy of Family Matters was like the greatest of surprises, Christmas, and the first day of school all wrapped up in a padded envelope. I knew it would be great. Indeed, Mistry is the recipient of the 2002 Kiriyama award for his new novel's contribution to understanding of Pacific Rim and South East Asian cultures.

Nariman Vakeel, the widowed patriarch of an extended family, lives with his stepdaughter and stepson in a large flat in politically corrupt Bombay (Mumbai) in the 1990s. His gradually debilitating Parkinson's disease and a broken ankle cause him to need Coomy and Jal's help for nearly everything. Coomy bathes her stepfather begrudgingly twice a week and grimaces when the old man humbly asks for the simplest of human needs; Jal goes along with what his bossy sister thinks is best. Meanwhile, Coomy and Jal's half-sister - Nariman's biological daughter, Roxana - lives with her husband and two sons in the two room flat Nariman purchased as Roxana's dowry.

Coomy schemes to make sure that Roxana is forced to care for her father in her tiny flat while she and Jal live in the relatively enormous family apartment, pretending that it is disintegrating and not fit for their father to live in. Nariman, a former professor, says, "To so many classes I taught Lear, learning nothing myself. What kind of teacher is that, as foolish at the end of his life as at the beginning? …Don't worry, this Lear will go home again." Roxana is Cordelia to Nariman's Lear, the most favored daughter who finds that Coomy, at least, is quite insincere to her father. Indeed, this family has its share of filial ingratitude and betrayal.

Couldn't this be any elderly gentleman forced to live on his children's kindness? Yes, and no. In every part of the world, families are making decisions and taking certain degrees of responsibility for their elders. But this story is still utterly Indian and there is no question about whether Mistry is the deserving recipient of the Kiriyama award. While the story of taking care of our aging and dying elders is a worldwide issue, the minutia of this family's daily life is distinctly Indian. Bombay's train system, arranged marriages, unending corruption of government, religious discrimination, exploding pressure-cookers full of curry, catholics vs. non-catholics in a cricket match, pollution and jewel toned saris, extremists whose goal it is to abolish Valentine's day and attack Muslims, children escaping into an Enid Blyton book to fantasize about the sort of British that aren't even in England… the beauty and the agony of India act almost as another character in the story. In a recent NPR interview, Mistry states that he has never taken care of a dying parent - surprising after reading the details and humanity of Nariman's Parkinson's disease - but relates that having elderly and dying family members in close contact is a way of life when one grows up in India. There simply aren't many other options if you aren't wealthy there. And so, while the minutia of a family's life and struggles are often mundane, Mistry masterfully weaves a reality that is both compelling and easy to relate to.

Roxana's husband, Yezad, works for a sporting goods emporium and has, in the past, eloquently written for permission to emigrate his family to Canada. Mistry himself emigrated to Canada some twenty years ago, as part of the nearly subconscious desire in India to find better opportunity in the West. Everyone in Yezad's family is proud of their Persian heritage and their Persian reputation for honesty and loyalty. And yet nearly each person in the family is lured by temptation into something illegal (gambling, bribery, etc.) to make an extra rupee or two for the family's monthly budget. One school-aged son saves his bus fare and walks to and from school; another, the teacher's pet and Homework Monitor, surprises and disgusts himself by accepting bribes from his classmates: improving their marks and adding to his mother's grocery and gas funds.

By living with his father-in-law in cramped quarters for several months, Yezad grows from a moody and resentfully uninvolved husband to a sweet and caring son to Nariman. He comments on the beauty of helping the elderly find comfort in their deaths: "Strange trip, this journey toward death. No way of knowing how much longer for the chief… a year, two years? But Roxana was right, helping your elders through it - that was the only way to learn about it. And the trick was to remember it when your own time came…"

The title's obvious double entendre speaks not only of the duties and responsibilities, the matters of a family's workings, but also of how much we finally realize our family does matter to us. Family Matters may focus more narrowly than A Fine Balance did, but the grace and truth of Rohinton Mistry's writing still haunts and touches his readers just as profoundly.

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About the Author:

Rohinton MistryRohinton Mistry was born in Bombay, India in 1952, of Parsi descent. He earned a B. A. in Mathematics and Economics at the University of Bombay. In 1975, at the age of 23, he immigrated to Canada where he studied at the University of Toronto and received a B. A. in English and Philosophy. After a few years in Canada, he began to write stories for which he received immediate attention; he won two Hart House literary prizes and Canadian Fiction Magazine's annual Contributor's Prize in 1985. In 1987, he published a collection of short stories entitled Tales From Firozsha Baag.

He published his first novel, Such a Long Journey, in 1991, for which he received Canada's Governor General's Award, the W. H. Smith/ Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best Book and short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize and was the basis for the 1998 acclaimed feature film of the same title. In 1995, A Fine Balance won the Giller Prize, the Royal Society of Literature's Winfried Holtby Prize, and the 1996 Los Angeles Times Award for fiction. A Fine Balance also made the short-list of nominees for the Booker Prize and was also one of the final Oprah book club selections. Family Matters also short-listed for the 2002 Booker Prize.

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