here are two « mysteries » in Rohinton Mistry’s 2002 novel Family Matters.
One concerns the character of Nariman Vakeel, the 79 year old Professor suffering from Parkinson and osteoporosis, who lives with his two adult unmarried step-children, Jal and Coomy, in their large family house. His wife died some years ago, in circumstances that connect directly to the drama which starts when, because he’s a burden to his two step-children, he is sent away to live in his daughter Roxana’s minuscule flat. There he lies all day long on the sofa, unable to move because of a plastered ankle. He has to be continually looked after, especially in the most unsettling bodily functions. But what is the meaning of this character? Is he a modern King Lear? What does he teach us?
And then there’s Yezad’s conversion to the Zoroastrian religion. Yezad Chenoy is Roxana’s husband; he works as salesman for a Mumbai sports shop, and together with Roxana, they have two boys, aged 13 and 10, Murad and Jehangir. Their little flat was bought for them by Nariman when Roxana got married, and they have started living a typical middle-class, hard-working life. Yezad’s position is vulnerable to economic variations, but he’s based his life on rational principles and careful management, and so far, it has worked. How and why does he evolve towards this mystical and soon intolerant conversion?
These 500 pages of small type contain Mistry’s precise, powerful and enchanting prose. Mistry’s creative powers, already prominent in A fine balance, lifts you above all calculated, escapist fiction to a world of psychological and emotional beauty which I have rarely seen. So Paul Elie (VillageVoice.com), who believes Family Matters is nothing more than melodrama, just has it all wrong, when he writes: “Family Matters is vexingly mediocre - thoughtful, great-souled, generous toward characters and readers alike, but badly in need of a little artistry.”
Family matters might be sometimes lengthy, but is never boring. In this novel, one is bound to say that there are absolutely no concessions to any of the conventional ingredients of fiction. No sex, no facile suspense, no satisfying coincidences. There is nothing but the unfolding of family life and emotions, the description of moral choices and their consequences. Nothing but the logical interplay of interests and affections. Where there is love, it’s like oil, the social machinery runs smoothly. Where hate reigns, it grinds to a halt, and snaps under the subsequent pressure buildup. Is this over-optimistic? Is there a missing dose of negativity? No, this is how it works in real life, as a rule, even if in some cases love fails and vested interests are too strong to budge.
At regular intervals, we follow Nariman’s previous life (it is told as in a dream, and is the only love-story of the book): we discover that “forty years before, as an eligible, secularly inclined young intellectual in newly independent India, he had wanted to marry Lucy, a Goan Christian. Reluctantly, and with tragic consequences, Nariman succumbed to family pressure and took instead a Parsi widow (with two children) to wife.” (John Sutherland, in the NY Times). What are these consequences, and what do they mean? Well, Lucy never stopped loving him, and became half crazy with his decision to conform to family wishes (which “mattered” more than Nariman’s feelings). She hounded him, took up premises close to where he had started living with his new wife Yasmin and their children (Chateau Felicity, a hypocritical name where Nariman still lives at the beginning of the novel), and inveigled herself in his life in spite of all reasoning. Nariman, who has never stopped loving her, is forced to see her, talk to her, much to the displeasure of his Parsi wife. One day, Lucy climbs on the roof of their block of flats, and trying to bring her back by sheer force (whereas in previous cases, Nariman had used soft words), Yasmin falls off the ridge with her.
The two stepchildren are marvels of characterization. Coomy, especially, the righteous and cantankerous spinster who pretends she’s altruistic and concerned, but who has let hate eat her up, and tragically has a hole instead of a heart. The scene where, at Nariman’s birthday, she is forced by her stepfather to bring out the bone china instead of the everyday plates and dishes is a piece of anthology. She secretly blames Nariman for having killed her mother, with his unruly love of that Goan woman. Let’s say she’s her deceased mother’s avenger. And so even if she cannot say it, her whole life is full of hatred and self-righteousness (as a compensation), and she’s on the lookout for the first opportunity to get rid of the detested free-thinker, who represents a crossover form of civilised culture very much at risk in today’s India. Coomy on the other hand represents intransigence and sectarianism. And the soft-willed brother Jal represents opportunistic powerlessness, because even though he’s friendly, he cannot resist his sister’s fury and rage, and objectively sides with her.
The broken ankle is the needed opportunity. At first, Nariman is taken care of at Chateau Felicity, but being bedridden, he’s now an invalid, and Coomy’s hatred spawns a Machiavellian scheme: she pretends they don’t have the money any more to look after him, that the doctor told her this and that, and one day she arrives at Yezad’s flat with Nariman in an ambulance. He is to stay only a few days. But after the period is over, she deliberately damages Nariman’s ceiling (in fact she obliges Jal to do it) and informs Roxana and Yezad that the “accident” in his ceiling makes his room impossible to have him back. This wilful hammering has a symbolical meaning: it stands for a generation’s disregard for the higher values of mercy, forbearance and integration. The deliberate destruction of Gandhian values, in fact, which India’s independence had elevated for the world to see. This ceiling of values is shattered in order to enable separatism, and the refusal of transgenerational education.
As a professor of English, Nariman Vakeel stands for the universality of culture, for the freedom of spirit against the narrow-mindedness of casteism and bigotry. And as grandfather he stands for the necessity of community and togetherness. And some of his “step” children (are today’s Indians still Ghandi’s children? asks Mistry) have all but refused his humanist and spiritual legacy. The fate of prophets is never an enviable one. And so when the iron girder (meant to repair the ceiling) falls on Coomy, it’s a logical punishment for her behaviour, but most of all it’s the author’s condemnation of the social and historical attitude based on the Coomy’s principles.
The detailed account of Nariman’s ordeal is so psychologically true, so morally compelling that I often read on with a kind of unease, the novel’s accusing eye on my own life’s compromises. Indeed who hasn’t, like Coomy, or worse perhaps, like Jal (because Jal lets violence take place, and does not act) sold at least some of their ideals and values, in order to live in more comfortable selfishness? Here the book’s narrative precision and, yes Mr. Elie, the all-knowing narrator’s interventionism serves a moral purpose intended at exposing our delicate and untold personal settlements with society and this makes Mistry a moralist of the best sort.
Let’s turn to Yezad now. Like Nariman, he used to be a staunch believer in secularism; he used to look down upon any religious belief as irrational and anti-modern. He used to indulge in the pleasures of ordinary life, laughing with his boys, enjoying his wife’s loveliness when he came back from work. But this finely balanced life is altered when Nariman, whom he respects and enjoys when he goes to visit his in-laws, is obliged to stay home, permanently, it seems. There’s the ever-present financial aspect, of course, and then the bedpan and bottle one. The genial father becomes a rigid purist when it comes to hygiene and cleanliness. He won’t allow “his” sons (possessiveness as the source of social chaos, cf. Jean-Jacques Rousseau) to touch Nariman’s instruments, and lets the old man in agony if Roxana is away. The bad smells and change of habits bring out the bad aspects in him. And this unbalancing of ordinarily virtuous life (virtuous because it was balanced – virtue is often that, a precarious balancing of humanity and animality) reverberates on the innocence of his boys: because joy and happiness are no longer the rule at home, because a poison of greed and hatred has been inoculated somewhere up the line, Jehangir lets himself trapped in a bribe-taking scheme at school (he helps classmates to cheat on their lessons), so he can bring money home to pay for grandpa’s medicines.
This wouldn’t be much of a crime, seen from a certain perspective, but Rohinton Mistry dramatises these little events so we can understand their moral importance as open doors for greater disasters. You start cheating and then you lie about your cheating, and the cheating becomes trivialised, the lying becomes trivialised, and so on. Yezad also abandons some of his principles, and goes to see a fortune-teller neighbour, who takes bets on numbers she’s seen in her dreams, and because it has worked once on a little sum, he’s tempted to do it again on a large one. It fails, of course, because the whole betting organisation is raided by police, and Yezad loses all the family’s money. The drama is less the financial distress he brings to his wife and children than the misery he inflicts on them and himself as well. Because of this incident, the joys of honesty and simple life are eaten up by worries and silent guilt, and this elementary moral lesson is always important to remember, I think.
There are forces which are present to repair and soothe: first and foremost Roxana’s dogged resistance to adversity. She looks after her children, after her husband, after her father, forgetting herself in the process: she’s the real saint of the story. Then there’s Daisy, the violinist next door, who comes and play for Nariman, and to whom he asks to come and play for him when he will die. She promises him she will, perhaps out of politeness. That scene is perhaps the only moment of real melodrama: realizing his grandfather is dying, Jehangir runs through town to fetch her, and finds her at a rehearsal and reminds her of her promise. She had forgotten, but she respects the promise, and goes back home to dress in grand style before meeting the agonizing professor and his family, and playing at his deathbed.
There’s also Vilas, the letter reader and writer, whom Yezad befriends on his way to work. For me he represents Mistry himself, trying to make sense out the chaos of human stories and listening to each person’s perspective. When the news he has to read to his clients is too harsh, he doesn’t ask for money. That’s his contribution to the alleviation of the general sorrow of the world.
What’s interesting is that some of this good-doing works: Yezad one day accepts to look after his father in-law’s bedpan, and Roxana realises that she’s been the instrument of something greater than her patience and selflessness. It’s after Yezad has decided to take up his religious practices which will eventually lead him to half-bigotry. But before that, they have undoubtedly lifted him up above petty trouble and put him put in the right way. Hence the gesture towards the old man. Yezad has found in his Parsi identity a new sense of accomplishment, just like Nariman had found accomplishment in the stoic acceptance and abandonment of his personal initiative. The old religion roots him in his position as son to his own father, and so father himself. But in the epilogue, which takes place 5 years later, Mistry shows him to have gone too far, and become bigoted and intolerant, as intolerant in fact as Nariman’s parents had been when they had refused that he marry the Goan Christian woman. Yezad’s son, Murad, is in love with a non-Parsi, and the confrontation is acutely described. Yezad is dangerously on the verge of sectarian intransigence, the fun-loving dad is now a frightening bigot who won’t let anyone step close to him when he’s doing his holy rites. The peaceful solace that he had managed to find in his religion has turned into a family war that Roxana looks upon helplessly.
I wonder if this change occurs because he has won. He’s won the struggle against the selfish forces in the family, but this victory becomes a failure. So doesn’t Yezad behave the way he does in the end because Coomy is dead, because Jal has invited them to come and live at Chateau Felicity, and finally they all live in the comfort they deserved? Could it be the balance has tilted too much on the positive side this time? Is Mistry telling us that all passion for religion rankles and becomes intolerant? Because on the other hand, we could say that true religiosity contains a sanctification process, a disconnection from worldly concerns which can seem intolerant to those that don’t share its radicalism.
Yet my appreciation of the novel focuses on Nariman’s example, his delicate and moving passing away into the silence of Parkinson’s disease, his friendly and refined humour, his dedicated sense of duty and finally his light-hearted stoicism. I’d say Yezad is left at an intermediary stage, the stage when one realises the importance and seriousness of religious commitment, but hasn’t yet acknowledged the vanity of clinging to one’s achievements. Yezad is religious by atonement, not out of love and this condemns his radicalism (not his faith!). Let’s then take the positive view that he might evolve, that experience will bring him the wisdom to realize his excess. Because what will save Yezad is that for him, “family matters”, he has Roxana, and after his sons have finished rebelling against him (as they must), they and their wives and children will be around him, and he’ll remember Nariman’s towering example. At one stage, Yezad does a brave thing: he tears up all the documents that he had kept in the loose hope of emigrating to Canada one day. He decides to stay in his country, and belong (something which Mistry has regretted not doing perhaps):
He sat upon the bed, and shook out the large envelope. The letters, forms, photocopies, news clippings fluttered out in a heap. He began ripping them up.
The sound of tearing brought Roxana to the backroom. “What are you doing?”, she asked, horrified.
“Getting rid of garbage”.
For a second she thought of rescuing the documents. Then she understood, Yezad was right, it was not worth keeping.
She joined him on the bed, cross-legged, and began tearing. It felt good. They looked up from the pile, smiling, and their eyes met.
When everything had been shredded into a mound of paper petals, he reached over it to pull her closer to him. He put his arms around her, cradling her head on his chest.” (p. 255)
I have to add here my son's Matthieu's very interesting commentary which he has added to this review on his Indian blog!