Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Reading Family Matters after reading A Fine Balance is a little anticlimactic. A Fine Balance comes very close to my idea of a perfect novel, so I doubted that Rohinton Mistry would be able to deliver something of similar calibre a second time. There is just something about A Fine Balance that smashes that wall between reader and text, breaking down the barrier until the fiction becomes as close to truth as fiction can. It is a visceral, highly emotional experience—and it is utterly singular and impossible to replicate. While I might give another Mistry book five stars, he has set the standard high. Family Matters is an excellent book, but it doesn’t quite pack the same punch.
Like A Fine Balance, this novel is set in Mumbai (then Bombay, and the nationalistic name change is an important plot point). Whereas the former is set during The Emergency, this novel is more contemporary, set sometime in the 1990s (I believe; I didn’t catch an exact date). The right-wing and volatile Shiv Sena party is in power throughout the region, whipping up a nationalistic fervour at the expense of tolerance for India’s diverse religions and cultures. In the midst of these times of change, we follow an extended family: Nariman, who slowly succumbing to Parkinson’s; his two step-children, Jal and Coomy; his daughter, Roxana; and Roxana’s husband, Yezad, and their two children, Jehangir, and Murad. When Nariman falls and breaks his leg while walking, he faces four weeks of immobility and bed rest. Though he has always lived with Jal and Coomy since his wife died, Coomy finds herself unwilling to shoulder this burden, so she literally shows up at Roxana and Yezad’s doorstep with Nariman and without warning. Talk about pushy!
At its best, Family Matters is the intricate interplay of three generations. Nariman continually recalls intense memories of a doomed love affair with a non-Parsi girl, and how she continued to dog him even after his ill-fated arranged marriage to Jal and Coomy’s mother. He is a victim of the conservative bigotry of his parents and their friends, but he is not a shining husband to his new bride. Nariman carries around a lot of guilt, and it is interesting to see the contrast between the young man and the ailing one in the present day.
Jal, Coomy, Roxana, and Yezad all belong to the latest batch of “adults”, though with Jal and Coomy that is a term only loosely applied. After Coomy unilaterally decides to transfer Nariman’s care to Roxana and Yezad, we see the impact of caring for an older relative on the lifestyle and budget of a middle-class Indian family. Money becomes a real issue, and at times Yezad is sorely tempted to abandon the “Parsi honesty” that has made him beloved to his boss at Bombay Sporting Goods.
Their son, Jehangir, does more than contemplate. Always honest before, Jehangir overhears how his parents are tight for money and wonders how he can help. He crosses the line and accepts a 20-rupee bribe in his official capacity as Homework Monitor. It’s one of those pivotal points in the novel: as he is about to accept the bribe, I wanted to do something and make him stop, even though I knew he was going to do it. A lot of the novel is like that: moments where suddenly the narrative tilts and becomes very predictable, but in a car-crash-like manner.
We don’t learn all that much about Murad, Jehangir’s older brother. He is sort of the silent sibling, speaking up only when there needs to be a counterpoint to Jehangir’s insistent voice. I wish we had learned more about him and about what he was going through at that age, especially since he becomes a more important character in the novel’s quixotic epilogue.
The epilogue is definitely the part of Family Matters that gives me, as a reader, the most difficulty processing. Part of me wonders why it’s there. It skips forward five years, after a semi-satisfactory resolution that doesn’t leave me quite as despairing as A Fine Balance—and Mistry wrecks everything! Yezad has embraced his newfound faith in Zoroastrianism in an extreme way, butting heads with both his wife and the rebellious teenaged Murad. If I had to guess, I’d say that Mistry includes this epilogue as a reminder that happy endings don’t stay that way: no situation remains stable forever, and what might appear a happy ending could very well lead to further trouble down the road.
I kind of feel like I am rambling on and stirring up name soup without actually saying much. I am having difficulty reviewing this novel because the whole thing works so well together, but when I try to pick out one of the parts, the entire structure collapses on me. I can’t talk just about the way Yezad interacts with the political pressures on his boss or just about Jal and Coomy’s abominable behaviour regarding Nariman’s care. The book is aptly titled, because all of these events together create a story that is worth reading. The significance of Family Matters comes not from what Mistry has to say on any one topic, but the way each of those topics affects the members of this family.
Not everyone will invest in the characters in such a way that the experience becomes meaningful. I did, although I didn’t enjoy the portrayals of these people as much as I did the characters of A Fine Balance. Both novels, however, are incredibly intimate experiences. Moreover, I love the opportunity they give me to open my eyes and see a country and cultures that truly differ from my own views in so many different ways. (Yes, this is Mistry’s interpretation of India, and I am aware that doesn’t come without its own baggage. One advantage to reading A Fine Balance before Family Matters is that I recognized all the subtle digs he includes aimed at various critics of the former novel.) I don’t just read fiction about India for the novelty value: I do it because I could read hundreds of novels set in the Western world, and they would improve my vocabulary and my literary aptitude, but they would only reinforce my biases and beliefs. There is so much more out there—and at the same time, even families on the other side of the world struggle with issues I can recognize: the ailing elder and his lost love; deceit and desperation; trepidation over the changing times. Family Matters is strange and foreign but also comforting and familiar, and so while it is not quite sublime, it is definitely successful.