Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry

A hero at home in brutal Bombay
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A quarter of the way through Family Matters, Yezad divides the Indian authors who write about Partition into two camps. On the one hand are the "realist novels of corpse-filled trains"; on the other, the "magic-realist midnight muddles". Mistry belongs to the first camp and, unlike the magical realist, he focuses on the grimy modern city rather than the exotic countryside. But this is modern India, so instead of corpse-filled trains he gives us overcrowded carriages.

Yezad, hanging on to an overhead railing, reveals how his "dream for an end to this apeman commute had led him to apply for immigration to Canada. He wanted clean cities, clean air, plenty of water, trains with seats for everyone." His application is rejected so he is confined to Bombay with its "14 million people, half of them living in slums, eating and shitting in places not fit for animals." Besides poverty, Mistry focuses on political corruption and religious divides. Hussain, a Muslim peon at the Bombay Sporting Emporium, tells how, during communal riots, "the police were behaving like gangsters... Firing bullets like target practice."

The emotional centre is Nariman, a Parsi widower. He is beset by Parkinson's disease and becomes bedridden. His stepchildren, Jal and Coomy, send him to live with Roxana, his natural daughter, and her family, in their tiny two-room flat – the flat Nariman spent his savings on so they might have "a place of their own".

Things start to fall apart for Roxana's family as soon as Nariman moves in. The money from his pension doesn't cover the cost of his medicines and, with an extra mouth to feed, they soon run into financial problems. The youngest son, Jehangir, starts accepting bribes as homework monitor at school and slipping the money into his mother's food envelopes. Yezad – Roxana's husband – gambles away the food money in an attempt to solve their difficulties. He then hatches an elaborate scam to secure a promotion and pay rise.

Family Matters is about the struggle to maintain integrity and honesty in the face of economic hardship. In the end, Mistry's characters pull through, but not unscathed. Yezad's scheme goes disastrously wrong: his boss is murdered and he ends up unemployed. Coomy dies in an accident, so Roxana and family move into the larger apartment with Jal. Their money worries are over but life is never the same again. Yezad turns to religion and becomes fanatical and tyrannical.

As the novel progresses, Nariman becomes increasingly silent. Towards the end, he's shut away from the family in his old room, with the ayah. He finally dies of his disease and his family mourn him at the Tower of Silence. Nariman becomes a Lear figure, cast out of his home by his elder daughter, who turns for support to his youngest daughter. But Nariman's collapsing body, the stench he makes as he relieves himself, his overgrown nails and beard, the old-man smell, also represents modern Bombay. Yezad and Mr Kapur share "a lament for the city they felt was slowly dying", being destroyed, "as the newspapers put it, 'in an unholy nexus of politicians, criminals and police'."

The form of Family Matters, with its big, linear narrative, recalls 19th-century novels; there's an element of post-imperial nostalgia. While Yezad hates the fact his children read Enid Blyton, he is obsessed with the photographs Mr Kapur brings of 1930s "European" Bombay. Kapur makes Yezad a gift of the prints of Hughes road but after his death his wife reclaims them. The romantic city images are finally lost.

Although large and ambitious in scope, Family Matters is not a baggy monster. The constant return to the tiny flat and its focus on interior lives makes for a tight, well-contained narrative. Ultimately, the novel's main achievement rests with character; Mistry never allows the writing to draw attention to itself. His creations are all equipped with longings, desires and, above all, resilience. The epilogue, narrated by the adolescent Jehangir, provides a stunning end. Roxana asks, "What is it Jehangoo? Aren't you happy?" And in the middle of the corrupt city, following scenes of family squabbling, he answers, "Yes, I'm happy."