A review of Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

The mixture of everyday life, and a very common set of tragedies coupled with moments of transcendence makes for a fast paced read. In the end, we are left with the permanence of love in the face of the temporarily of everything else. Vakeel’s love for lucy, Roxana’s love for her father, husband and children, and even the love between Jehangir, Murad and their father form the backbone of this emotive read.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Family Matters
By Rohinton Mistry
Faber and Faber
May 2003, pb, 448 pp, rrp A$23.95
ISBN 0-571-21553-X

The once lauded Professor Nariman Vakeel has Parkinson’s disease. Along with his shaking hands, he is slowing losing his mental and physical abilities, and is at the mercy of his carers — his angry stepdaughter Coomy and inept stepson Jal– who share his house. When he breaks his ankle, he becomes bedridden, and his already difficult life becomes intolerable when Coomy sends him to live with his daughter Roxana Chenoy and her family in a tiny flat in Bombay. The story follows Roxana and her husband Yezad’s struggle, both physical and financial, to cope with Roxana’s invalid and rapidly deteriorating father, and their two son’s coming of age in the face of the changes that Vakeel’s arrival brings. It also looks at Vakeel’s own internal struggles for self-respect and meaning as his body declines.

The narrative of Family Matters is straightforward, leading the reader slowly forward in time as we discover a few secrets about Vakeel’s life and watch the impact of his illness and aging on his family. In between the main narrative are Vakeel’s italicised flashbacks, the dreams which cause him to shout out and cry, only half glimpsed on the surface by Roxana and Yezad’s young sons Jehangir and Murad. This is the reconciliation of his life, his personal drama to work through as he remembers his one true love, the Goan non-parsi Lucy, and his arranged marriage to the unsuitable and unhappy Yasmin. Meanwhile the Chenoy family have their own dramas to work through — Yezad’s insecurities, his previous failure to emigrate to Canada, his money worries, gambling, and growing feelings towards his own Parsi religion, and the unsavoury mechanics of Vakeel’s physical needs and the confined space they live in.

Outside of Pleasant Villa where they all now live, the world turns, and politically, Bombay has its own difficulties, exemplified by Shiv Sena, the Hindu extremist organisation’s slaughter of his co-worker’s family. Kapur, Yezad’s colourful and compassionate boss demonstrates the city’s changes through the photos he collects, and his attempts to unify diverse religious groups through small gestures like handing out Christmas candy. The characters are well drawn, Vakeel in particular, but Yezad and Roxana also draw the reader into their struggles. Yezad’s move from open minded secularist to ultra-religious close minded Parsi mirrors the close mindedness of Vakeel’s family which destroys Vakeel’s life.

The novel ends on a positive note, and the epilogue suggests that perhaps there is still a story to come in Jehangir’s life, although perhaps in some ways it will be the same story again, as Yezad’s boss Kapur says:

Everyone underestimates their own life. Funny thing is, in the end, all our stories — your life, my life, old Husain’s life, they’re the same. In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story — of youth, and loss, and yearning for redemption. So we tell the same story, over and over. Just the details are different. (228)

Although the stage is fairly small, the story is a moving one, and one which certainly illuminates the pain and helplessness of old age, and disease. The reader is made acutely aware of the Vakeel’s fall, from eminent professor to helpless child, captive in his own body as Dr Tarapore reminds us of his prior eminence. The cycle of father and son is also an important theme between Vakeel and his father and later both Murad and Jehangir’s struggles with Yezad. Honour, eminence, joy, pain, beauty, and even life is temporary as Villie Cardmaster, the Chenoy’s neighbour tells Yezad:

“Everything is temporary, Yezadiji. Life itself is temporary.” (127)

Although the themes are strong, the narrative compelling, both major and minor characters appealing, and the movement within and without Vakeel powerful, there are a few things which don’t work so well in Family Matters. Jehangir’s first person voice in the epilogue seems contrived, and is jarring after the third person narrative that forms the main body of the novel. The death of Coomy and the funny, but perhaps too clownish to be believed Edul also appears contrived, as do other major turnarounds in the book, including Jal’s, Yezad’s and Vakeel’s sudden decision to marry a Parsi girl. Maybe life is like this, but it doesn’t seem believable in the context of the novel. These minor problems notwithstanding, Family Matters is a moving novel, especially Vakeel’s Parkinson’s, his decline, and his inner voice. The mixture of everyday life, and a very common set of tragedies coupled with moments of transcendence makes for a fast paced read. In the end, we are left with the permanence of love in the face of the temporarily of everything else. Vakeel’s love for lucy, Roxana’s love for her father, husband and children, and even the love between Jehangir, Murad and their father form the backbone of this emotive read.

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