Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry

Family Matters

My only previous experience with Indian novelist Rohinton Mistry was A Fine Balance, a book I liked quite a lot.

A Fine Balance is the kind of ambitious sprawling novel that has a huge number of characters and events to keep track of—highly challenging, though certainly rewarding if done well, for both writer and reader. It’s a book with elements of love, inspiration, and friendship, but those elements and all else are in the end overwhelmed by the unrelenting horror, cruelty, and misery of the story.

Both books start as stories of a very small group of friends or relatives—a family of sorts—and the connections, conflicts, and drama that develop among them. Both then gradually expand, introducing other characters along the way and affording them roles of various sizes, as well as giving us a better understanding of the Indian social and political context and how it affects the lives of all these people and those like them.

Family Matters, though, never feels as “large.” That’s not good or bad; I’m just saying that while both books focus on the domestic drama of a core group of people while also incorporating other characters and wider themes, Family Matters seems to stick with that core group more, and never to quite take on the epic magnitude of A Fine Balance.

As I say, A Fine Balance is a major downer (which doesn’t preclude a book being very good, which A Fine Balance is). Family Matters? Well, I have mixed feelings about that as I look back on the book. Certainly there’s a lot of pain, a lot of conflict, and it’s not all resolved with a happy ending. Like A Fine Balance, while some of the finer aspects of human nature are manifested here and there, the story as a whole is more an illustration of how people routinely mistreat and disappoint each other, both on a micro (these individual characters) and macro (the political goings on in India) scale. Also like A Fine Balance it left me more sad than anything.

Yet in the end I’d say I experienced it as (modestly) less of a downer than A Fine Balance. In thinking about why, I wonder if it has to do with where the characters are as the book ends. At the close of A Fine Balance, the main characters are all either dead or aging with seemingly little future to feel good about. That is, for the most part they’ve been defeated by the travails Mistry has put them through. Perhaps the difference with Family Matters is that while the same is true of the bulk of its main characters, that central cast also includes children, and it’s not clear that they have been sufficiently damaged by what has transpired to not be able to recover. It feels like there’s just a little more hope for what they will become, and what their world will become.

The family in question in Family Matters consists of elderly Nariman, suffering from Parkinson’s, his stepdaughter Coomy, stepson Jal, and daughter Roxana, Roxana’s husband Yezad, and Roxana and Yezad’s children Murad and Jehangir (13 and 9, respectively, at the start of the novel). The most significant non-family member character is Vikram Kapur, Yezad’s employer at Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium. Then in flashbacks we are introduced to other important characters, including Nariman’s parents, his deceased wife Yasmin (the widowed mother of Coomy and Jal when he married her, and the mother of his daughter Roxana), and his ex-girlfriend Lucy.

This is one of those books where setting matters, where the city in which the novel takes place—Bombay (Mumbai)—is something of a character itself. Kapur especially, and to some extent Nariman and some of the other characters, have a love affair with Bombay, routinely recounting its history, extolling its virtues, and lamenting the ways in which it has deteriorated.

One tidbit I picked up from the book is that the renaming of Bombay as Mumbai was instigated by right wing political Hindus. Characters like Kapur oppose the renaming and what it symbolizes, thus his retention of “Bombay” in the name of his sporting goods store.

OK, let me give a quick rundown of the plot, which no doubt will include some spoilers, though I’ll try to avoid giving everything important away.

All the main characters in the book are Parsis who belong to the Zoroastrian religion. Nariman’s parents were devout Zoroastrians who were appalled when their son became involved with the non-Parsi Lucy. For many years they pressured him every way they could to renounce her and marry appropriately within the faith, and for many years he defied them. Finally he could hold out no longer and reluctantly went along with their wishes.

They found a Parsi bride for him (a widow with children was the best they could do, since he was damaged goods due to his long involvement with an outsider), and he married her. Lucy refused to accept it and commenced stalking him. He sort of tried to get her to stop, but, as she knew, he still loved her and wished that things could have worked out (or that he had been stronger) so that he could have married her instead, so he was ambivalent about her continued presence in his life.

Mostly his relationship with his wife Yasmin was decent, and her children Coomy and Jal were quite fond of him. When Roxana came along, her stepsiblings accepted and loved her. But gradually those relationships deteriorated under the strain of Lucy’s continued stalking and Nariman’s only half-hearted efforts to get rid of her.

Ultimately the Lucy situation directly led to Yasmin’s death. This made the situation even worse between Nariman and Coomy and Jal, since Nariman and his ex-girlfriend could be seen to have had a role in their mother’s death. Actually it was a bigger deal to Coomy, very much the dominant of the siblings; Jal is a passive, good-natured sort who, left to his own devices, probably would forgive Nariman and get along with him fine, as he gets along with everyone.

The relationship between Nariman and his stepchildren is not one of hostility or total estrangement, but is certainly not the close one it promised to be when he first entered the family.

At the novel’s opening, the ailing Nariman is staying with Coomy and Jal, neither of whom has married. Their caring for him is motivated maybe 20% by actual love for him and 80% by a somewhat grudging adherence to conventional expectations of familial duty.

Taking care of Nariman is a significant financial strain, and it becomes a more severe one when he sustains an injury and becomes indefinitely bedridden. So they—really Coomy—come up with a plan to rid themselves of the responsibility by dumping him on Roxana.

The scheme succeeds, and Nariman ends up at Roxana and Yezad’s place. But they really aren’t any better financially equipped to handle the responsibility of his care, nor is Yezad thrilled to have an elderly sick person in their quite small living quarters 24 hours a day. Yezad is a mostly friendly, intellectual, wise-cracking atheist who genuinely likes Nariman, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a burden he feels he didn’t sign up for and would much prefer not to have to deal with.

Roxana and Yezad fight with Coomy and Jal about money, with the hapless, deteriorating Nariman stuck in the middle. Roxana and Yezad, and even the children, feel the financial pressure so intensely that they start cutting moral and legal corners to try to come up with what they need.

One of Yezad’s such efforts involves tricking his employer Kapur. Kapur and Yezad are actually quite fond of each other, and Yezad recognizes Kapur as a good guy (he’s a mildly eccentric idealist who despises the corruption and religious fanaticism he sees around him and gets the idea of entering politics himself to try to do something about it—very likely a quixotic endeavor), so he tries to arrange it so he can get the money he needs without hurting Kapur in the process. But eventually the whole thing blows up, as do pretty much all the things the family does to try to relieve the financial pressure they find themselves under.

Now dealing with more depression, anger, resentment, and guilt than he’s used to, Yezad, to the surprise of everyone, finds himself drawn more and more to the faith of his ancestors and his community, and commences exploring Zoroastrianism. For a time this seems to have almost all good consequences for his peace of mind and for how he treats others, but gradually it drifts toward an unappealing fanaticism to where ultimately his relationship with his children is not unlike what existed between Nariman and his doctrinaire, religiously conservative parents.

By the end, almost all the characters we’ve come to know are either dead or decidedly unhappy.

Mistry makes sure you can’t ignore the actual physical consequences of serious illness. From early in the book, there are detailed descriptions of the sights, the sounds, and the smells of Nariman’s suffering—the unsteady walking then reduction to bedridden status, the moaning and semi-coherent rambling in his sleep, and the gradual diminishing of his memory, ability to speak, and other capacities.

Above all there’s the embarrassment, discomfort, and overwhelming smell as he loses his ability to control his bladder and bowels, and must depend on others to assist him. That task specifically, and his care in general, is understandably burdensome and even gross to the family members stuck with him. So even though to varying degrees they acknowledge their familial responsibility to provide this care, you get a sense for how unpleasant it all is and why it generates such stress and conflict.

Then there’s the financial strain as well. Even if they didn’t have to provide the physical care themselves and have him living in the same cramped quarters, if the cost was the same—like if they put him in a nursing home or somewhere for the same amount of money as their extra expenditures are now—it would still be a source of stress and conflict, albeit not to the same degree. Mistry lets you feel that too. Though these are not dirt poor people by any means, he shows how constantly money woes are on their minds.

Related to that, one of the themes of the book is how being dishonest and cutting moral corners when one becomes desperate for money (or for other outcomes, such as getting out from under the burden of having an elderly relative slowly deteriorate in your home) only makes a bad situation worse. Time and time again, a character gives in to the temptation to engage in ill behavior they normally wouldn’t, and it sends them down a slippery slope to tragedy.

Too often to be realistic, in fact. In the real world, moral corruption does not so consistently lead to grief. (If it did, presumably people would have figured that out by now and so would avoid it.) But in Family Matters, once you take that first step into wrongdoing, however it might seem to be working out early on, inevitably you will get caught or will make matters far worse for yourself and others, or both.

The other unrealistic aspect of the novel is the unfortunately very common one in fiction of depicting superstitious and supernatural beliefs as having merit. In this case, a kooky friend of the family is convinced she can hit the numbers by playing her hunches. The increasingly desperate Yezad eventually decides to gamble on her intuition, and of course her picks turn out to be gold. (It does all fall apart later, but not due to her hunches being unreliable.)

Religion plays a prominent role in Family Matters. Nariman’s father’s strict enforcement of Zoroastrian rules on his son is more or less what brings all these people together (and what directly and indirectly generates much of their misery—that’s certainly true in Nariman’s case).

Beyond that, Coomy is fairly religious (at least in a formal, ritualistic sense, not so much morally, though her religious convictions are presumably relevant to her accepting—partially, temporarily—the responsibility of caring for her aging stepfather). Yezad’s scheme to manipulate his employer Kapur involves Kapur’s defiance of the Hindu fundamentalism he sees as one of the things destroying his beloved Bombay.

But one of the most significant developments in the novel is the aforementioned one wherein the cynical, intellectual Yezad finds himself drifting back into Zoroastrianism.

In the early going, he finds that embracing the faith of his community gives him the inner peace and contentment that have been so hard to attain ever since caring for Nariman started so badly straining his family’s patience and budget. He becomes a more humble, caring, ethical person. In a key scene, he manifests a newfound empathy for his father-in-law Nariman and a willingness to act lovingly toward him by for the first time cleaning up after him when he has soiled himself—much to the stunned appreciation of his wife. (To that point, Yezad had allowed Nariman to stay in his home, and had perhaps helped in his care in small, non-gross ways, but the understanding was that he drew the line at any involvement in the toilet stuff.)

But then the lesson seems to be “you can have too much of a good thing.” Since the introduction of faith into his life has been so good for him and for his family, Yezad allows it a larger and larger role. By the end, he is engaged in a conflict with his older son Murad that parallels the one decades earlier between Nariman and his father (though the young Murad and the young Nariman are of sufficiently different personality types that one can guess that the outcome—whether better or worse—will not be the same).

You can also see a possible parallel between Nariman’s giving in to his forceful father’s dictatorial edicts and the passive Jal’s tendency to let his sister Coomy run all over him. Not that the situations are all that similar. For one thing, I think Jal is far more passive by nature; Nariman fought off his father for an impressively long time before finally succumbing. For another thing, Nariman seems to have been more damaged by losing the battle of wills with his father, whereas for Jal being the submissive partner in his relationships seems more something he can take in stride, and for that matter an area where he is still capable of improving, as we see him getting just a little more confidence in running his own life by the end of the book.

But I suppose what stays with me as much as anything from Family Matters is the way people will sometimes actively interfere with the opportunity for other people—even and perhaps especially those close to them that they allegedly love—to be happy, and how typically that is motivated not by some sort of individual malice or sadism, but by the traditions, rules, and prejudices of their community or religion.

Of course I’m thinking primarily of Nariman and Lucy. Here are two young people in love—and not just in a frivolous, infatuation kind of way, but in a deep way that has been sustained for many years—who simply want to be together and build a life together and make each other happy. What possible justification can there be for emotionally torturing them long enough and severely enough to destroy that opportunity and break them up? None that I can see, beyond something like “Blindly following and coercively requiring others to live by the customs of our group necessitates doing so,” which is a dumbass reason.

Probably Nariman’s plight, and his lamenting of “what might have been,” hit me the hardest, but Mistry is an effective novelist and so I was able to feel for many of the other characters as well, including Yezad.

Like I say, Family Matters isn’t quite the sprawling epic that A Fine Balance is, and I suppose if you could only read one of them I’d give the nod to A Fine Balance, but only narrowly, as Family Matters is a fine book as well.