Family Matters: A Novelby Rohinton Mistry
The setting is Bombay, mid-1990s. Nariman Vakeel, suffering from Parkinson's disease, is the elderly patriarch of a small, discordant family. In a building called Chateau Felicity, he and his two middle-aged stepchildren - Coomy, bitter and domineering, and her just-younger brother, Jal, mild mannered and acquiescent - occupy a once-elegant apartment whose ruin is… See more details below
The setting is Bombay, mid-1990s. Nariman Vakeel, suffering from Parkinson's disease, is the elderly patriarch of a small, discordant family. In a building called Chateau Felicity, he and his two middle-aged stepchildren - Coomy, bitter and domineering, and her just-younger brother, Jal, mild mannered and acquiescent - occupy a once-elegant apartment whose ruin is progressing as rapidly as Nariman's disease. Coomy has "rules to govern every aspect of [Nariman's] shrunken life," but even she cannot keep him from his evening walks. When he stumbles and breaks an ankle (fulfilling one of Coomy's nagging prophecies), she has hardly said "I told you so" before she is plotting to turn his round-the-clock care over to her younger, sweet-tempered half sister. Roxana, her husband, and their two sons live in an already overcrowded apartment, but Coomy knows that Roxana will not refuse her. What Coomy cannot know is that she has set in motion a great unraveling (and an unexpected repair) of the family - and a revelation of its deeply love-torn past.
–Noah Richler, National Post
“He ought to be considered simply one of the best writers, Indian or otherwise, now alive.”
“The reader is moved, even to tears, by these rites of passage among characters we have lived with long enough to feel as family. . . . The exercise of compassion, by the writer and then by the reader, remains one of the novel’s chief duties and complex pleasures.”
–John Updike, The New Yorker
“A magnetic tale that comes as close to perfect as a novel can get.”
“Magnificent.…Family Matters could well be one of the finest novels most of us will ever read. It is certainly a masterpiece.”
“Warm, humane, tender and bittersweet.…The author of A Fine Balance again explores the tightrope act that constitutes life on this planet.…This beautifully paced, elegantly expressed novel is notable for the breadth of its vision as well as its immensely appealing characters and enticing plot.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“For the purposefulness and clarity of his moral vision, there is no better writer living in Canada today.…Mistry weaves a marvelous tapestry.…”
“Family Matters moves and engages at every moment.…Mistry is among the most distinguished of the Indian writers currently visible, partly because he does not try to make India itself his main subject.…His real territory if the divided heart.”
–Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books
“Heart-breaking and utterly beguiling.…”
–The Herald (U.K.)
“Compassionately attentive to the blend of tragedy and comedy and strikes the notes of each with grace, precision and tenderness.…”
“Impressive. . . . Wry and richly perceptive.…”
–Times Literary Supplement
“A giant among writers.…A vibrant and full-bodied novel.”
“Compelling and rich.…”
–Globe and Mail
“With deceptive simplicity, Mistry draws his fine balance between scepticism and affirmation, faith and bigotry, family nurture and control.”
–The Guardian (U.K.)
[He is] blessed by talent as natural as breathing.…”
“His prose style is as clear as a pane of newly polished glass.”
“Mistry remains one of our most important writers –one of our most important moral voices.…”
–Quill & Quire
- Faber and Faber
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Read an Excerpt
Though Roxana was their half-sister, Jal and Coomy’s love for her had been full and complete from the moment she was born. At fourteen and twelve, they were not prey to the complicated feelings of jealousy, neglect, rivalry, or even hatred, which newborns evoke in siblings closer in age.
Or perhaps Jal and Coomy were grateful for Roxana because she filled the void left by their own father’s death, four years earlier. Their father had been sickly through most of their childhood. And during brief stretches when his lungs did not confine him to bed, he was still weak, seldom able to get through the day unassisted. His chronic pleurisy was the symptom of a more serious pulmonary disease, its two dreaded initials never mentioned among friends and relatives. Just a little water in the lungs, was how Palonji’s illness was described.
And Palonji, to alleviate his family’s anxiety, made a running joke out of this coded description. If Jal, always full of mischief as a child, did something silly, it was due to a little water in his head. “You must plug your ears when you wash your hair,” his father teased. Clumsy hands meant the person was a real water-fingers. And if little Coomy cried, her father said, “My lovely daughter does not cry, it’s just a little water in the eyes,” which would promptly make her smile.
Palonji Contractor’s courage and his determination to keep up his family’s spirits were heroic, but the end, when it came, was devastating for Jal and Coomy. And three years after his death, when their mother remarried, they were stiff towards the stranger, awkward in their dealings with him. They insisted on addressing Nariman Vakeel as New Pappa.
The word stung like a pebble each time it was hurled to his face. He made light of it at first, laughing it off: “That’s all – just New Pappa? Why not a longer title? How about Brand New Improved Pappa?”
But his choice of adjectives was infelicitous; Jal told him coldly that no one could be an improvement on their real father. It took a few weeks for their mother to convince her children that it would make her very happy if they dropped the New. Jal and Coomy agreed; they were maturing rapidly, far too rapidly. They told their mother they would use whatever word she wanted. Merely calling him Pappa, they said, did not make him one.
Nariman wondered what he had let himself in for by marrying Yasmin Contractor. Neither had come together for love – it was an arranged marriage. She had taken the step for security, for her son and daughter.
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.…
Thirty-six years had passed since. And still he remembered the Sunday evening, the hebdomadal get-together of his parents’ circle of friends. In this very drawing–room, where the furniture was still the same, the walls carried the same paint, and all their voices still echoed from that Sunday evening….
Much rejoicing had erupted when his parents announced that their only son, after years of refusing to end his ill–considered liaison with that Goan woman, refusing to meet decent Parsi girls, refusing to marry someone respectable – that their beloved Nari had finally listened to reason and agreed to settle down.
He could hear every word on the balcony where he sat alone. As usual, Soli Bamboat, his parents’ oldest friend, semi-retired and still a very influential lawyer, was the first to respond. “Three cheers for Nari!” he shouted. “Heep-heep-heep!” and the rest answered, “Hooray!”
Soli Bamboat’s vocal machinery, despite a lifetime’s struggle with the treachery of English vowels, was frequently undone by them. His speech had been a source of great puzzlement and entertainment for Nariman in childhood.…
Meanwhile, the group responded thrice to Soli’s heepheep-heep before commencing with an assortment of individual cheers and good wishes for his parents.
“Congratulations, Marzi!” said Mr. Kotwal to his father. “After eleven years of battle you win!”
“Better late than never,” said Mr. Burdy. “But fortune always favours the bold. Remember, the fruits of patience are sweet, and all’s well that ends well.”
“Stop, Mr. Proverb, enough,” said Soli. “Save a few for the rest of us.”
Curious about their comments, Nariman shifted his chair on the balcony so he could observe them without being seen. Now Mrs. Unvala began professing that she had always had faith in the boy to make the right choice in the end, and her husband, Dara, nodded vigorously. Their opinions were offered as a team; the group called him the Silent Partner.
Then Soli entered the balcony, and Nariman pretended to be engrossed in a book. “Hey, Nari! Why are you alone? Come and join the circle, you seely boy.”
“Later, Soli Uncle, I want to finish this chapter.”
“No, no, Nari, we nid you now,” he said, taking the book away. “What’s the rush, the words won’t vaneesh from the page.” Seizing his arm, he pulled him into the drawing-room, into the centre of the gathering.
They thumped his back, shook his hand, hugged him while he cringed and wished he hadn’t stayed home that evening. But he knew he would have to face them at some point. He heard Soli Uncle’s wife, Nargesh Aunty, ask his mother, “Tell me, Jeroo, is it sincere? Has he really given up that Lucy Braganza?”
“Oh yes,” said his mother. “Yes, he has given us his word.”
Now Mrs. Kotwal scuttled across the room, pinched his cheek, and said, “When the naughty boy at last becomes a good boy, it’s a double delight.”
He felt like reminding her he was fortytwo years old. Then Nargesh Aunty beckoned from her seat on the sofa. She was the most softspoken of the group and usually drowned by its din. She patted the place beside her and bade him sit. Taking his hand in hers, which was shrivelled from burns in a kitchen accident during her youth, she whispered, “No happiness is more lasting than the happiness that you get from fulfilling your parents’ wishes. Remember that, Nari.”
Her voice came to him from a great distance, and he had neither will nor energy for argument. He was remembering the week before, when he and Lucy had watched the tide go out at Breach Candy. Some children were dragging a little net in pools of water among the rocks, searching for sea life forgotten by the amnesiac waves. As he watched them splash and yell, he thought about the eleven years he and Lucy had struggled to create a world for themselves. A cocoon, she used to call it. A cocoon was what they needed, she said, into which they could retreat, and after their families had forgotten their existence, they would emerge like two glistening butterflies and fly away together…
The memory made him weaken for an instant – was he making the right decision?…Yes. He was. They had been ground down by their families. Exhausted by the strain of it. He reminded himself how hopeless it was now – Lucy and he had even reached the point where scarcely an evening went by that they did not quarrel about something or the other. What was the purpose in continuing, letting it all crumble in useless bickering?
Then, while the children nearby squealed with excitement at a creature caught in their net, Lucy tried one last time to convince him: they could turn their backs on everyone, walk away from the suffocating world of family tyrannies, from the guilt and blackmail that parents specialized in. They could start their own life together, just the two of them.
Struggling to maintain his resolve, he told her they had discussed it all before, their families would hound them, no matter what. The only way to do this was to end it quickly.
Fine, she said, no use talking any more, and walked away from him. He found himself alone beside the sea.
And now, as his parents and their friends discussed his future while sipping Scotch and soda, he felt he was eavesdropping on strangers. They were delightedly conducting their “roundtable conference,” as they called it, planning his married life, having as much fun as though it was their whist drive or housie evening.
“There is one problem,” said Mr. Burdy. “We have indeed shut the stable door before the horse bolted, but we must provide a substitute mare.”
“What did he say?” asked Nargesh Aunty.
“Mr. Proverb believes the bridegroom is ready, but we nid to find heem a bride.”
“Don’t you think,” she said timidly, “that lovemarriage would be better than arranged?”
“Of course,” said his father. “You think we haven’t encouraged it? But our Nari seems incapable of falling in love with a Parsi girl. Now it’s up to us to find a match.”
“And that will be a challenge, mark my words,” said Mr. Kotwal. “You can look as far from Bombay as you like. You can try from Calcutta to Karachi. But when they make inquiries, they will find out about Nari’s lufroo with that ferangi woman.”
“Impossible to hide it,” agreed Mrs. Unvala. “We’ll have to compromise.”
“Oh I’m sure Nari will find a lovely wife,” said his mother loyally. “The cream of the crop.”
“I think we’ll have to forget about the cream of the crop,” said Mr. Burdy. “As you sow, so shall you reap. You cannot plough the stubble of the crop one day, and expect cream the next.”
They laughed, and their jokes became cruder. Soli said something insulting about ferangis who wiped their arses with paper instead of washing hygienically.
The detachment with which Nariman had been listening evaporated. “How sorry I feel for you all,” he said, unable to choke back his disgust. “You’ve grown old without growing wise.”
His chair scrooped as he pushed it away and returned to the balcony. He picked up his book, staring blankly at the pages. There was a light breeze coming in from the sea. Inside, he could hear his parents apologizing, that the poor boy was distraught because the breakup was still fresh. It infuriated him that they would presume to know how he felt.
“Prince Charming –didn’t appreciate our humour,” said Mr. Burdy. “But there was no need to insult us.”
“I think he was just quoting from a book,” said Mr. Kotwal.
“My big mistake,” said his father, “was books. Too many books. Modern ideas have filled Nari’s head. He never learned to preserve that fine balance between tradition and modernness.”
“Time weal pass and he’ll become normal again,” said Soli. –“Don’t worry, prosid one step at a time.”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Burdy. “Act in haste, repent at leisure. Remember, slow and steady always wins the race.”
Disregarding their own advice, in a matter of days his parents’ friends arranged an introduction for him. “You will meet Yasmin Contractor, a widow with two children,” they told him. “And that’s the best you can expect, mister, with your history.”
Either this widow, they explained, or a defective woman – the choice was his. What sort of defect? he asked, curious. Oh, could be cock-eyed, or deaf, or one leg shorter than the other, they said breezily; or might be someone sickly, with a weak lung, or problems in the child-bearing department – it depended on who was available. If that was his preference, they would make inquiries and prepare a list for him.
“No one is denying you are handsome and well educated. Your past is your handicap – those wasted years, which have thrown you beyond the threshold of forty. But don’t worry, everything has been considered: personality, family background, cooking and housekeeping skills. Yes, the widow is our number-one choice. She will make you a good wife.”
Like an invalid steered by doctors and nurses, he drifted through the process, suppressing his doubts and misgivings, ready to believe that the traditional ways were the best. He became the husband of Yasmin Contractor, and formally adopted her children, Jal and Coomy. But they kept their father’s name. To change it to Vakeel would be like rewriting history, suggested his new wife. The simile appealed to his academic soul; he acquiesced.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Mystery has here again captured the life of contemporary Bombay Parsi's torn between the old and new traditions and necessities. Nari, the 87 year old patriarch who breaks his ankle is the fulcrum of this tale. He is living with his step daughter and son who remember and are cursed by his relationship with their Parsi mother whom he was forced to marry after her widowhood to keep his family in order instead of the forbidden Christian woman, Lucy, from Goa whom he loved and his family refused even though she would not give him up. In thier small community they all saw each other daily. Nari was willing to give in to his new wife, but Lucy waited outside of his window daily singing songs from their past. And she dramatically threatened to throw herself off the roof of their apartment building on a regular basis. Nari's wife was jealous and furious. She took his clothes so that he must meet Lucy in the street clothed only in a towel. Finally, she confronted Lucy on the ledge of the building from where she threatened to dive and for reasons unknown they both fell to their death with Nari not succeeding in saving either. Nari lived for years with his three children in a flat in Chateau Felicity until his youngest daughter married. He gave her and her new husband a small apartment in Pleasant Apartments. They have two sons. Too soon Nari found himself 87 and retired from the University under the care of his two half-children, Coomy and Jal, who see him as a burden in his own home. One night Nari slips on his evening walk and breaks his ankle. He must have four weeks of bed rest. After three days his step-children, Choomy and Jal can't stand the work and the smell of his bed pan. They decide that their younger sister, Nari's full child, Roxane should take over the job even though she lives in a two room apartment. Roxane takes in her father with joy and cares for him. Nari hates to be a burden, but the grandchildren Murad and Ja help him with the generosity and good cheer. But, Roxana's husband Yesad finds having Nari in the small apartment an emotional and financial burden. Money is tight in the house and the rooms are small. Tempers rage. Temptations come. Coomy indulges in foolish schemes to keep Nari out of his apartment. She decides to destroy the plaster ceiling of his bedroom and to call in a neighbor in the building to fix it. This fixing leads to the death of both of them. Over the course of sacrificing to maintain Nari even Yesad learns to care for him and is drawn to the Parsi faith. The story resolves itself in a beautiful, yet ironic manner. This is a real tale of contemporary Parsis in India. Their practical and religious concerns are honestly discussed. The story ends with new dilemmas beginning.
I have yet to pass up a Rohinton Mistry book. His writing style is illuminating, REAL, and captivating. He has absolutely NO EQUAL in modern-day storytellers. In this book, as in all his others, his characters are never lacking in explanation or description, and the way he weaves the story is fascinating. I couldn't put it down...never knowing when the classic "Mistry Tragedy" would occur. He is such a wonderful, poetic, and reality-based author!
I finished this book late last night. It completely pulls you and captures you into the story. RM's prose captures every little detail of life which we so easily take for granted....and then gives it back! Very very delightful.
I loved A Fine Balance, absolutely adored it and is one of my favorite books of all time and so I went into Family Matters expecting maybe not an equally great story but one that at least matched up. A Fine balance had a Parsi touch to it but Family Matters was overloaded with the Parsi religion. And although that is not a bad thing, it was completely not what I expected. It seemed like a motivation book to go back to being a good practicing parsi. The book was wonderfully written but the story line was not at all interesting.
Of all the Indian novelists writing today, yes Rushdie included, Mistry truly has no peer. His latest novel shows why the comparisons to Dickens and Austen are not misplaced. I grew up in Bombay and lived there through college, and my love for that lively city has never waned. Mistry's elegant, elegaic prose provides the truest description of Bombay life that I have ever encountered. This book is a must read!
I read this book a couple of weeks ago and found it very illuminating. The book is as much a poem for a Bombay, long gone, as it is about Nariman Vakeel and his family. As an Indian and Bombayite, I found this book to one of the best I have read in a while.
Just returned from India where this book has been released. Could not put it down. As usual, RM captures the little things in everyday life and makes them interesting as only Jane Austen could do.
family in Mumbai struggle to care for their aging father ,some don't want to others find it all consuming ..the feel of the book is that you are right there the depth of character is spot on ...the social cast of the people play deeply into the novel
The patriarch of a Parsi (Persian) family living in modern day Bombay, who suffers from Parkinson's, breaks his ankle. Until then, he lived in a reasonably spacious 7-room home with his resentful adult stepchildren, but after the accident they cannot stand being saddled with his care. So they pack him up and ship him off to be cared for by their step-sister, in a cramped, two-room flat that she shares with her husband and two young sons. Through the voices of several main characters, Mistry shows what happens to a family that is pushed to the very edge, financially, emotionally, and spiritually. He also paints a vivid picture of an unfair caste system in India and how it tears into the moral and social fabric of families and the greater community, and of a corrupt government. I'll admit this particular book was a bit heavier than most of my reading fare, and I had to stop several times because of the overwhelming depressing nature of the situation. But then after catching my breath, I would always pick it up again, partly because I came to care so much for the characters, but also because it shamed me that to get away from such a tense, stressful existence, I needed only to set the story aside.
This writer will always be someone I will read. Even if his novels are sometimes painfully realistic about squalid living conditions, bodily functions and nasty odors, they are so worth reading. Beautifully done, as usual.
I liked this book better than Mistry's A Fine Balance because Family Matters is less melodramatic, less preachy and more realistic. Each of the characters rang true and I experienced each one's pain and joy. My only compaint is that Mistry is determined to leave lives unresolved, as in real life. Is that a Parsi ideal, to accept one's fate without questioning it? I don't know.
This book was alright, but failed to keep me interested like his previous book, 'A Fine Balance'. I found myself unsatisfied by most of the characters and the storyline was disappointing as well.