Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

I couldn’t remember which was recommended to me, and picked Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters at the library, instead of A Fine Balance. I wonder if, had I chosen the latter, I would have been awed as promised. I started reading Family Matters late in the evening and finished it in the middle of the night. Interesting and at times painfully beautiful, though the book was, it did leave something to be desired.
Set in Bombay (Mumbai to some of us) Family Matters is the story of a middle-class Parsi family. The story opens in a little household. We meet Nariman Vakeel, once a professor of English and now, a Parkinson’s patient living at Chateau Felicity with his step-children, Coomy and Jal. The opening scene: Nariman announcing his intention to go out for a walk, Coomy complaining about having to take care of her sick step-father, Jal with his hearing-aid struggling to keep up with the conversation. The very start brings out the deep, inner turmoil brought on by Nariman’s sad, scandalous past, which haunts each of them throughout the book. When Nariman’s breaks his ankle on one of his walks, Coomy must do everything from giving him the bedpan to changing his sheets. Resentful of what he’s done to them and their mother, Coomy plots to send Nariman to live with his real daughter, Roxana, who lives with her husband, Yezad and two kids, Jehangir and Murad in a tiny apartment in Pleasant Villa. As the Goodreads blurbs says, Their decision will test not only their material resources but, in surprising ways, all their tolerance, compassion, integrity, and faith.” Taking care alone of her sick Pappa, struggling to maintain her husband’s happy routine, managing the household with the money problems and raising the two monkeys, who love and take care of Grandpa forms Roxana’s tale of love, devotion, responsibility and everything in between.

In the first few pages, the book seemed to promise a delicate drama, but it was all too much way too soon. By the time I’d read a hundred pages, the endless graphic descriptions of bed sores, urinals and bowel movements made me queasy to the point where I had to, not reluctantly, stop reading during dinner. They were, quite frankly, rather unnecessary. It was realistic, I get it, we’ve had sick to attend to too, but I could have done without the nausea, thank you. The book was melodramatic, as was to be expected, affairs of the family are rarely anything else, but what disappointed me was how little was left for us to realize. Every feeling was described in detail and ruined. There were little moments in the book, where the writer managed to restrain himself, perhaps, and he sort of let the subtle love wash over us. Jehangir feeding Grandpa soup with a responsible air about him was one of those touching scenes, Roxana observing and alluding to it then and later, explaining how the little action should make a us feel, was unnecessary. There was little magic in the book.

The book had a nostalgic air to it and the descriptions of Bombay fascinated me. (It so contrasts the Bollywoodian Mumbai of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games.) Of course, I appreciated how it was more a love for a home one has had or a haven one has built that seeped through the pages, than the love for just a particular city. There were different aspects of the Mumbai world in the book, from being attached to the old name Bombay, playing Matka, the local trains, the hot, greasy weather, children dreaming of Enid Blyton’s   scones and porridges, and the politics bubbling in the city. The way it affected and inspired every person differently was just lovely. Yezad’s frequent outbursts of rage against the “goondas” and their racism (which he claimed to be above) blotted the pages and were, or so it seemed to me, rather biased, or maybe they just didn’t appeal to my bias. The only Marathi people in the book spoke in this ridiculous continuous tense (of the “we are thinking that you should do this” kind), while everyone else was very literary in their dialogue, but let’s not get into that.

The prose is a bit overdone, so verbose. But sitting here with the book in my lap, it’s funny, how opening to any page at random brings up a bit of wisdom, fabulously quotable.

“I think emigration is an enormous mistake. The biggest anyone can make in their life. The loss of home leaves a hole that never fills.”

“Little white lies are as pernicious as big black lies. When they mix together, a great greyness of ambiguity descends, society is cast adrift in an amoral sea, and corruption and rot and decay start to flourish. (…)Everything is disintegrating because details are neglected and nothing is regarded seriously.”

“If Bombay were a creature of flesh and blood, with my blood type, Rh negative – and very often I think she is – then I would give her a transfusion down to my last drop, to save her life.”

“Yezad approached the sanctum again. The fire was burning vigorously, the flames leaping with joy, and the room was a dance of light and shadow. He stood absorbed for a few moments, then felt is was churlish – churlish to refuse to bow before a sight so noble in its simple beauty. If he did not bend now, for this, what would he bend for?”

The ending employed what most literature freaks love to hate, and an abrupt, convenient change in the unsolvable situation led to a clean resolution of all problems. Till then, the characters were all blacks and whites (very few grays). With the epilogue, five years later, Yezad had changed, the children were older and a few grays emerged; the ending succeeded in making the one-dimensional characters more real. At the same time, with Yezad disapproving of Murad’s Marathi girlfriend, the book showed how things, even over a span of so many years, rarely change at all.

I really don’t know how to conclude, except to say that, for me, the book had a combination of goods and bads. I certainly didn’t love it. I can think of many people, though, who might really like the book for the very reasons I didn’t: the fairly poetic prose, the often ostentatious drama and the sentimentality.

6 thoughts on “Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry”

  1. Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is one of my favorite books….you will definitely be awed by this one…do read
    I haven't read any other novels by this author…will check out 'Family Matters' Thanks for your post!!


  2. Hey, Aditi, thanks for stopping by! You're not the first one to tell me that after reading the review, so I'll definitely give A Fine Balance a try. 🙂


  3. Wow, I just realized this guy is Canadian and lives close to me! As always, a wonderful and insightful review but I should probably read "A Fine Balance" first? 😛


  4. That'd probably be better, yes. I didn't know he was in Canada either, all I know is, where he was born is close to me! Hope you get around to reading A Fine Balance..


  5. I've had this one on my shelf for over a year and just haven't gotten around to reading it. I'm tempted to pick it up but not sure how far I'll get . . .


  6. Well, I won't suggest you to hurry into reading this one! I've noticed only people who are already familiar with Mistry's writing seem to love it.


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