Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters
Reviewed by Gail Vida Hamburg
The double entendre in the title of Rohinton Mistry’s novel is no mere Hallmark sentiment. The Indian not yet inspired by Western notions of personal freedom, still lives his life in the context of family—its rules authored by the caste and enforced by the clan and family. What profession he pursues and who he marries, fall within the jurisdiction of “family matters.” Personal space – “spatial matters” if you will -- is also a compelling issue on a subcontinent populated by one billion people. Rohinton Mistry’s quintessentially Indian novel is a discursive tale about family and spatial politics, and disintegration of the self and the home.
Nariman Vakeel is an aging widower suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He lives in a large, crumbling Bombay apartment -- the Chateau Felicity -- with his unmarried adult stepchildren, Coomy and Jal. Coomy is a hectoring mass of spinsterish frustration and curdled memories who blames Nariman for “killing” her mother. She has “rules to govern every aspect of Nariman’s shrunken life,” Mistry writes. A virtual prisoner in the apartment, Nariman defies Coomy on only one count: he insists on taking his evening walks despite his progressive illness, and her dire predictions of the dangers that could befall him. Jal, who is constantly fumbling with his inferior hearing aid and missing key parts of conversations, lives out his own shrunken life cowed by his overbearing sister. He does not leave the apartment other than to visit the bazaar to speculate on business deals. “Our minds contain worlds enough to amuse us for eternity … Why leave the flat at all … I would lock out the hell of the outside world and spend all my days indoors.”
When Nariman is debilitated by a broken ankle and requires intensive care, Coomy becomes resentful. She loads the old man into an ambulance and deposits him on her half sister’s doorstep. Nariman, a former English 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?” The ingratitude, betrayal, and lack of love in this family are certainly Shakespearean in size, with Nariman as the suffering Lear.
Roxana, Nariman’s biological child, lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with her husband, Yezad and their two young children, Jehangir and Murad. The boundaries of personal space are violated with the addition of Nariman to the household. The impossible living conditions—the family forced to eat breakfast in the same small room where the bedridden Nariman relieves himself into a bedpan—strain the family’s forbearance and goodwill. The costs of the old man’s medicines also stretch the family’s already meager finances. Yezad who prides himself on his Persian reputation for honesty and loyalty; and his sons, soon find themselves drawn to corrupt ways of making extra rupees to increase the family income. Yezad and his son, Jehangir wrestle with moral crises in the face of poverty. “By the end of the school day the weight of the clandestine transaction had quite disappeared. Once he figured out a way to use the cash in his pocket, things would heal between Mummy and Daddy … Gazing out the bus window, he dreamt of happiness returning to their home.” One of Yezad’s own sleazy schemes, designed to ensure his promotion to a more lucrative position at work, results in the murder of his employer.
In order to keep her stepfather out of her life permanently, Coomy unhindered by the feckless Jal, hatches a plan to convince Roxana that the home is unsuitable for habitation. Armed with a hammer and pails of water to wreak water damage, she methodically wrecks the rooms in the large apartment at Chateau Felicity. The disintegration of the family is symbolized by the terrible vengeance Coomy unleashes on the home—a retribution for her mother’s death. The glowering countenances of Coomy’s ancestors -- frozen in portraits hanging in the hall -- suggest that nothing is overlooked or forgotten in this household.
The chaos and sweat and smell of teeming Bombay are palpable on every page of Mistry’s novel. There is no getting away from this most impossible of cities. At work, Yezad must contend with a Muslim assistant whose entire family has been slaughtered by Hindu fanatics. At home, one of Yezad’s sons -- displaced from the couch by his grandfather -- must sleep on the balcony, while the other must listen to Nariman’s tortured dreams about his past. Mistry uses italicized flashbacks to introduce decade old incidents and wounds that fester and fuel the story's action. Nariman’s guilt over the death of Lucy, a Christian woman so obsessed with Nariman she never recovers from their breakup; and the accidental death of his wife, unfold in flashbacks as well as through Nariman’s nightmares and memories. “And he, when he looked back on it all, across the wasteland of their lives, despaired at how he could have been so feeble-minded, so spineless, to have allowed it to happen,”
In the end, everyone pays a prize for withholding or opening up their personal space. Coomy is killed in a construction-related accident in her home, Jal who invites Roxana and her family to share the large apartment retreats to his bedroom because of Yezad’s violent outbursts, Yezad becomes a religious fanatic who terrorizes his children, and Roxana watches everything she loves die around her. “My mother grieves by herself about the ceaseless quarrelling and bitterness that has taken hold. She confides in me that Grandpa …had tried to warn her not to move to Chateau Felicity, into his house of unhappiness.”
This is an old fashioned novel about a society in which individuals are inextricably linked to families, where each life would be rendered meaningless if lived without the others, and where everyone is battle scarred and burned from too much physical proximity and too little money.
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