Character and Fate

March 5, 2003

Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters, London: Faber & Faber, 2002. 

Reviewed by Janie Gibson

Family MattersIn Family Matters Professor Nariman is the central character around which three generations of family revolve. The complex relationships of his immediate and extended family provide the tension of the unfolding story.

As the narrative begins the aging Nariman, a former professor, is living at Chateau Felicity with his stepson, Jal, and stepdaughter, Coomy, in a spacious apartment that he has made over to them.  Roxana, Nariman’s natural daughter and her husband Yezad live in a much smaller flat, Pleasant villa, in a block with their two sons, Murad, a laconic teenager and Jehangir, a sensitive young boy.

Coomy has never forgiven Nariman for her mother’s death, despite the fact that he had continued to care for her and Jal. She is constantly berating him and trying to control his life, both in the apartment and beyond, lest some accident befall him. This is exactly what happens. Having failed to dominate the old man, she then decides he is too much of a burden for herself and Jal, and should be cared for by Roxana and her family, a situation she manipulatively brings about. Mistry uses the impact of Nariman’s incapacity on daily life to explore the tensions that arise, as each member of the family is forced to confront their own attitudes to each other.  Yezad, for example, refuses to help with the old man, complains constantly about him and the imposition on the family, and even forbids his sons to assist with Nariman’s ablutions. This causes anguish for the young Jehangir, who is very compassionate and empathetic, both to the old man and to his mother. This forces the burden onto Roxana and increases the old man’s plight and frustration, as he becomes more and more dependent on the family.

Coomy refuses to help the family financially, even though she has control of Nariman’s finances. Jal, because he is afraid of her, is unable to stand up to her and so retreats into his own world. Through these behaviours and actions, Mistry is able to reveal the different personalities of the family, as each tries to ‘help’ the situation. As each one tries to think of a way to improve their financial situation, without communicating a plan to any one else, misunderstanding arises and this further increases the tension in the flat.  For example, Jehangir, who has been made a homework monitor because of his good character, tries desperately to help his parents by taking bribes from fellow students. Not only does this upset his parents and teacher when he is found out, but also places him under great stress. Meanwhile Yezad is sneaking off to gamble at the neighbour’s flat, further compounding Roxana’s misery as she suspects he is being unfaithful.

The goodness and strength of Roxana, the peacemaker, is juxtaposed with Yezad’s feckless behaviour. His coolness towards his father-in-law, a man he once respected, his foolish gambling and his high handed attitude once he loses his job, contrast with his wife’s self-sacrificing and loving nature. Mistry’s characters are realistic, and through their actions they reveal both strength and weakness. Yezad, while having visible flaws, is also shown to be a loving and caring father and husband. He once had ambitions to migrate to Canada, and had tried to improve his position at work by persuading Mr Kapur, his boss, to become a politician. But he seems to be overwhelmed by circumstances and his own ‘imperfection’.

Despite the bleak picture that Mistry paints at times, and the seeming inability of the family to ever improve their situation, there are also many moments of humour, albeit sometimes a little black.  Yezad’s return to his Parsi faith provides one such moment, especially when he tries to impose his fanaticism on the teenage Murad, who previously has had little religious upbringing at all. The descriptions and behaviour of some of the minor characters, such as Mr Kapur, provide some light-hearted moments in the novel. Mr Kapur’s behaviour is seen as eccentric because he will not change from the old ways. e.g. he refuses to call Bombay, Mumbai.

A Fine Balance, Mistry’s earlier novel also set in India, was a huge canvas, and the fate of the characters appeared to be determined by an inevitability of red tape and tradition.  In some ways it was easier to read, because there was so much happening and there was a tension in the story throughout. Family Matters, while still having this sense of the characters’ lives being determined by fate and circumstance rather than choice, is a more focused look at one family. The canvas is more detailed as you become immersed in a smaller world, the neighbourhood. His setting allows the reader to experience the hustle and bustle of Mumbai, while at the same time feeling the intimacy of the crowded flat or train. The characters are convincing, their behaviour and emotions are plausible. Again, Mistry’s story telling involves the big themes: the cycle of life and the fundamental events within it. In this more intimate look at a microcosm of Indian life, however, we also learn more about how Mistry sees people’s characters as their fate, while recognising how their actions, in fact, sow the seeds for their future.

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