Tuesday, March 21, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 22nd Review - Family Matters

Rohinton Mistry is a bit of a puzzle to me.  He writes extremely well and develops characters that engage the reader, but then he leaves them in terrible straits.  I may be wrong, but I assume that is his way of working through the vast injustices that he sees in India, where fate is generally quite cruel to his characters.  (Indeed, A Fine Balance was one of the bleakest novels I have ever read.  I can't really imagine reading it a second time, though I might possibly reread Such a Long Journey some day.)  Mistry migrated to Canada in 1975 as a young adult, though all his novels are set in India, so he has been mining the territory of his youth, though Family Matters is set in India in the 1990s, i.e. after his immigration.  One of the families in Family Matters had dreamed of moving to Canada, at a time when the immigration procedures were changing and it was more difficult to immigrate legally if one didn't have a technical background (to satisfy the point-based system) and their dream was dashed.  (I'm blanking on any other specific references to Canada, which is more of a dream of a better future than a real place in Mistry's fiction.)  It isn't clear what he has been working on since Family Matters (2002).  He did publish The Scream in 2008, though it seems more like a minor variation of the main character, Nariman Vakeel, who is slightly more vocal about his perceived ill-treatment by his family.

In some ways, this is his least bleak novel, though there are still plenty of major and minor tragedies that befall several of the characters; also there is a somewhat disturbing turn of events at the end, which I'll get to in short order.  There is more of an expressed moral order to the universe in this novel (than the others) in the sense that characters who are particularly spiteful and/or who cannot forgive others suffer for it.  That said, there are still quite a few random tragedies that occur, and Mistry seems to be saying that one must learn to go with the flow and generally keep one's head down to survive in Mumbai.  In particular, Mistry seems to be indicting the religious prejudices that are very much alive in India, while at the same time suggesting that the depth of sectarianism is so strong in India that dating across religious lines inevitably leads to tragedy.  The only escape is to leave India altogether, though this is an avenue not open to most.


As I mentioned somewhat briefly in this post, the set-up for the novel is that Nariman Vakeel, a former professor of English, is suffering generally from the infirmities of old age and specifically from Parkinson's disease.  He lives with his step-son, Jal, and step-daughter, Coomy, in a large flat.  His daughter, Roxana, lives with her family in a two bedroom apartment in a different part of Mumbai.  Despite considerable tension in the household (due to Coomy blaming her step-father for the death of their mother), life goes on until right after Nariman's 79th birthday.  Shortly after this event, he goes out for a walk and breaks his ankle.  The strains of having to care for him while he is confined to bed basically causes Coomy to snap and she dumps Nariman off at Roxana's apartment, despite her family's cramped living arrangements.  The first hundred pages or so really go deep into the difficulties of caring for an aged parent, and I felt considerable relief when the book's focus shifted to the expense of Nariman's care and less about his infirmities (not that this ever completely was eliminated as a theme -- one turning point is when Roxana's husband, Yezad, finally comes around and helps with the bedpan).

Anyway, relief is a relative term.  Yezad and Roxana really struggle to make ends meet with the additional expenses, even after Coomy turns over Nariman's pension to them.  Yezad is tempted into gambling, which doesn't turn out well.  He is also frustrated at work when his boss more or less promises him a promotion and then changes his mind.  One of the children ends up corrupted at school, taking bribe money to help laggards cheat on their homework, just because he wants to help out with these expenses.  As a bit of a counter to these events, Mistry shows that the family really does care for each other and that the children basically do have good values but are under extreme pressure.  (This is sort of the same theme as Achebe's No Longer at Ease, though fortunately the teacher is much more forgiving or understanding and the child's future is not ruined, which it easily could have been been.)

Mistry is almost Victorian in the way that scheming always leads to unhappy outcomes and -- perhaps because there is so much free-floating misery in India -- others get swept up in it.

Again, SPOILERS...

Coomy intentionally has their ceilings ruined to make it look like there is a major structural damage to the flat (to keep from having to bring Nariman back), but eventually is forced to bring in an incompetent handyman to fix them.  She and the handyman both die in an accident.  Yezad tries to spook his boss back into running for an election, so he will be promoted in the meantime, so he hires two actors to pretend to be Shiv Sena (an ultra-nationalist, Hindu-first party) and demand the name of the store be changed (from Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium to Mumbai Sporting Goods Emporium*).  But then the real Shiv Sena show up and his boss is killed in a clash in the store, which quickly leads to Yezad losing his job after the store is sold.  After all this unhappiness, Jal finds a way to reunite the families and bring in enough money to keep everyone afloat.  Unfortunately, Nariman's ankle never heals well enough for him to walk again and he declines fairly quickly, but still he is surrounded by family when he dies.

This would almost make for a Hallmark-special type ending, but Mistry has a few tricks up his sleeve.  Yezad has gradually been going to temple and becoming more religious.  This seems to accelerate quickly after he loses his job and isn't able to find another one.  It's also quite likely that his guilt over his role in his boss's death leads him into religious mania, not completely dissimilar to Lady Macbeth's outbursts.  In the short term, this makes him much more appreciative of his family and more willing to help take care of his father-in-law.  He also more or less stops trying to find work, which then allows him to spend even more time at temple.  In the long term, he becomes deeply religiously conservative, to the point that he tries to forbid his son from talking to, let alone dating, any girls of a different religious background.  Thus, we come full circle back to the tragedy of Nariman's young adulthood when his parents (and indeed the community at large) forced him to give up the love of his life, Lucy, and marry his wife.  While he did find some happiness with her (and both loved Roxana), it seems fairly clear that everyone would have had a happier (and longer!) life had religious prejudice not kept the two apart.  Thus, Mistry seems to be saying that for the most part no one in India has learned anything from Gandhi and that religious sectarianism still is blighting the country.  What is left unsaid is that the only way out seems to be escaping the country completely.  (Perhaps Yezad would have not have fallen back into fanaticism had he been in a more secular society, such as Canada.)

Thus, the novel is quite depressing though in a different way from Such a Long Journey or A Fine Balance.  (It actually has a number of humorous passages, but the overall impact is still fairly grim.)  It is definitely not a novel one would want to read if trying to escape from today's poisoned political climate, for example.  It is also not a novel that one should read when "feeling old," since it offers a pretty grim picture of what life may well be like for the elderly after they reach Shakespeare's 7th Age of Man.  The number one lesson from Family Matters seems to be to do one's best not to die poor, while the second lesson is not to alienate one's children or step-children, since one will need them again late in life.  Do with that what you will...

* While certainly on a different scale, I couldn't help but think of some of the Quebec laws around signage during this part of the novel.

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