Reading Family Matters

Rohinton Mistry is one of the finest Indian writers, and this novel is no exception to his skill. Everyone ages and dies; there’s nothing particularly intriguing about the fact of life passing. But there seems to be something exquisite about the bare reality of life when Rohinton Mistry writes about it. Family Matters is the story of a Parsi family living in modern Mumbai, dealing with the day to day gravities of youth, age, duty and desire.

The novel opens with an account of Nariman Choudhary’s birthday. Nariman is old and frail, constantly haunted by memories of his past. He lives in Chateau Felicity with his middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy. There is a bitter distance between Coomy and Nariman, mainly because she blames him for destroying her mother’s life. On Nariman’s birthday, the family is visited by Nariman’s daughter, Roxana, with her husband and their two young sons. Roxana is Jal and Coomy’s half sister, the product of their mother’s second marriage to Nariman after her first husband passed away.

Gradually we learn that Nariman had loved a Christian girl, Lucy, but gave into family pressures by marrying Jal and Coomy’s Parsi mother. Yet, Nariman was unable to deny his love for Lucy, and the family suffered a grave tragedy due to the love triangle. Nariman is plagued by what happened, and Coomy’s anger is a perpetual reminder. After Nariman has an accident on his daily walk, Coomy cannot bear the extra burden of caring for her old and infirm step-father. She convinces her brother Jal to tell a lie that would require Roxana to take Nariman into her tiny flat. Roxana loves her father and accepts the responsibility, although it is a great strain on her family. Roxana and her husband, Yezad, live a modest but happy life with their two boys, Murad and Jehangir. Having to care for Nariman in their crammed flat and the need to provide his expensive medicines puts pressure on their finances as well as their relationship. But with great perseverance, they accommodate him by making sacrifices in their own lives.

The best parts of the novel are the simple accounts of everyday family life: Roxana’a morning preparations for her family, the children’s endearing jokes and the rituals that form a part of family life. The prose slips in and out of different perspectives: sometimes we feel Nariman’s pain, sometimes Roxana’s concern or Jal’s guilt. The novel begins with Nariman, but the final word goes to Jehangir – from the old to the young.

This is a mammoth novel, tracing the lives of many individuals and how they all fit together. In it, you can find tragedy, comedy, mystery, suspense, romance. The scenes are painted in careful detail and the words flow seamlessly together. There is no ingredient lacking in this novel, but it is written with such temperance that it doesn’t become overbearing either. If you’re about to read it then I have just one precautionary advice for you: be prepared to both laugh and cry. You might want to find somewhere that is not too intrusive to read this one.

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