Tuesday, September 24, 2002

King Lear in Bombay

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. Alfred A. Knopf. 448 pages. $26.00

You can't escape the past, it repeats itself too often -- religions, cultures, families and family novels never fail to make this point. In Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters, set in modern-day Bombay, the past has been a constant bother for some thirty years, ever since Nariman Vakeel knuckled under to family pressure to marry within his own caste. Leaving behind his true love, the Catholic Lucy Braganza, he settled into a passionless and resentful mid-life marriage to the widow Yasmin Contractor -- a fellow Zoroastrian, or Parsi -- and her two children, to which the couple add a third of their own. The marriage proved an uncomfortable fit for all concerned, eventually proving tragic for both Yasmin and Lucy; I'd explain how, but that would be giving away too much.

The novel opens years after these events, when the women are long gone and their dueling ghosts have settled in for good. Nariman is now an old man with Parkinson's Disease, living in the ill-named family home, Chateau Felicity, with his middle-aged stepchildren, the vengeful Coomy and her spineless brother Jal. After taking a spill in the street, Nariman finds himself incapacitated and at his children's mercy; a former English teacher, he thinks of himself as King Lear. While he has none of the defects of ShakespeareÕs tragic hero, he has all the indignities and then some: dementia, incontinence, the painful memory of how he lost not one woman but two, and the everyday reality of the family that came about as a result. Coomy decides that she isn't about to spend her days giving baths to her despised stepfather, let alone wiping his ass and helping him pee. Instead, she pawns him off on her younger stepsister, Roxana, and cooks up a deceitful scheme to make sure he stays with her indefinitely: she and Jal destroy the ceiling in Nariman's bedroom and then claim it leaks. The bedroom is now officially inhabitable until it can be fixed, which she makes sure will take forever.

Roxana, Nariman's devoted, Cordelia-like daughter by Yasmin, lives in a cramped and crumbling flat with her husband, Yezad, and their two school-age boys, Murad and Jehangir. With the family already scraping by on Yezad's income as manager of the Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium, Nariman's arrival makes things tighter in every way. Besides being a financial burden who has reduced their living space, the family as a whole has to deal with all the rituals of bathing, bedpans, feedings, and doctor visits. Marital spats increase, and family values gradually begin to erode.

Roxana and Yezad are lapsed Parsis, but their sense of cultural heritage is strong. They want to raise their boys to be as ethical and tolerant as Gandhi and to avoid the easy way out, but life both inside and outside the house works against them. On the streets is a crumbling and increasingly fractured Bombay culture. Shiv Sena, the staunchly anti-Muslim political faction, poses a constant threat of violence to Yezad's co-workers and eventually his Hindu boss, the likeable but naive Mr. Kapur. There's also the steady lure of becoming English; Yezad nourishes a dream of fleeing to Canada -- Mistry's own transplanted home base -- while Jehangir reads adventure books about English boys and dreams of changing his name to John. Resistance to temptation weakens. Jehangir tries to help out the family finances by taking bribes from other school children when he becomes homework monitor. Yezad winds up blowing what little money the family has on an illegal lottery, winning big on the very night the government decides to shut the game down.

That kind of fateful coincidence will reappear. Partly due to Yezad, Mr. Kapur has a tragic encounter with a pair of Shiv Sena goons. At the same time, back at Chateau Felicity, CoomyÕs plan to repair the ceiling with the help of an incompetent handyman is about to come fatefully crashing down.

As a father figure, Yezad is only outwardly tough; Roxy is the family rock. Yezad has no control of his life, and is largely frustrated in every effort to make his destiny. He is, in other words, like his helpless, bed-ridden father-in-law, whom he has always loved but can now barely stand to be around. It's because of these frustrations that he turns in desperation to the last source of strength, his family's religious faith. Yezad's faith grows into fanaticism, and the family's cycle completes itself: Yezad becomes the very type of unbending family stalwart who started the family off on the wrong foot all those years before. Religion, the force that can bind a family together against an uncertain world, can also rip it asunder.

The narrative glides from one character to the next. First Nariman and then Coomy take center stage before receding into the background, re-emerging later. At the heart of the book is the struggle of Yezad and Jehangir, a well-intentioned father and the son who will go on to tell his story. The city of Bombay is a major character, too, where the family tug-of-war between tradition and modern life is played out on a larger scale every day.

There's nothing fancy about Family Matters, and that's what I loved about it. It opens a window into a world most of us know nothing about, and it presents that world with abstemious clarity and a perfectly inviting intelligence. There's no magical realist folderol. Not that I necessarily hate that kind of thing; it's just that I found myself grateful that no angels, devils or swoops of time and space were in the offing, and that Mistry brought nothing into his shop but the precision of a born storyteller. When Yezad enters the fire-temple for the first time to pray, you have that intoxicating feeling of seeing something that's always been hidden, and you find yourself wanting to know more. This is probably the best novel of Indian family life I've read since Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, and I haven't read a more captivating novel all year.

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