In beautiful, diverse, tumultuous, striving Bombay, the three children of Nariman Vakeel live in two homes. Chateau Felicity, a large, rambling apartment, houses Nariman himself, as well as his middle-aged stepchildren Jal and Coomy. Pleasant Villa, a few miles away, is the tiny and crowded apartment home of Nariman’s daughter Roxanne, her husband Yezaad, and their sons Murad and Jehangir. The dynamic between the two families is friendly but fragile; Coomy harbors resentments from her childhood, but can keep them in check for the brief times the families meet, and the loving Roxie knows not to overstep her bounds.
This delicate balance is spoiled, however, when Nariman goes for his regular evening stroll one day and breaks an ankle. After a brief, sullen, painful time at Chateau Felicity, with Coomy caring for his physical needs with increasing resentment, Coomy hires an ambulance and delivers Nariman to Pleasant Villa, depositing him on the settee in the living room without a word. Roxanne and Yezaad, who have no space, no extra money for medications, and an already-busy schedule with two children, must struggle with this additional physical and emotional burden. Even their love for Nariman (who, in addition to his broken ankle, has Parkinson’s disease) cannot obliterate the day-to-day difficulties of caring for him.
This is the basic premise of Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters. As the book develops, each character has a strain, like a piece of music: we learn about Nariman’s past, when he loved a girl who was outside of the Parsi community and so was not permitted to marry her, and the tragic consequences of that affair; we learn about the stresses of Yezaad’s employment, and the lengths he will go to in order to get a raise; we follow Jehangir to school and watch his strategies to use his talents to get money. Even the neighbors have voices and histories. The best thing about the novel is the characterization, and the second best is the voice: Mistry uses beautiful, evocative English with a mix of words that (I assume) have no good English equivalent, so we hear Hindi and other languages. Mistry was born in Bombay, and lived there until he was about 23 years old, and it’s clear that he has a strong, living sense of the city and its individuals, as well as its competing communities. The Vakeel “family matters” touch on religion, politics, love, medicine, despair, education, immigration, music, and the lottery, and that’s not half of this complex and intricate novel.
The primary theme in Family Matters is rigid traditionalism and religious fundamentalism. The consequences of Nariman’s abandonment of his first love and his forced marriage to a more “appropriate” (Parsi) girl blight his family for decades, as shown in Coomy’s resentment and Nariman’s own unhappiness. Out in the larger world, this same fundamentalism — Hindu, this time, not Parsi — appears in Shiv Sena thugs who burn houses and murder families. By the end, this spiritual poisoning has turned every peaceful religious impulse into a tool of prejudice and exclusion.
I struggled with reading Family Matters. I picked it up and put it down several times, because some of the suffering in this book is quite painful. But in the end, the characters are too strong and their voices are too important not to read. And it’s not all suffering, either: Mistry has a keen sense of the absurd, and there’s laughter in every chapter. I ended the book knowing I had read something wonderful. I recommend you do the same.