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Breathing Corruption - Rohinton Mistry explores the struggle for a decent life in a world ruled by bigotry, graft, and violence.

Michael Thorpe, a poet and critic of international English literature, was visiting professor at Mysore University in 1978. A sequence of his Indian poems appears in The Observing Eye (1988). His latest poetry collection is The Unpleasant Subject: Sketches Around Hitler (TSAR, 2001).

Born in Bombay in 1952, Rohinton Mistry grew up there and has set nearly all his fiction in that city, although he immigrated to Canada in 1975. His education was in the classical British Empire tradition, still valued in the tiny Parsi community to which he belongs. It seems appropriate that the foremost character in his new novel, Family Matters, should be an English professor who lards his speech with Shakespearean quotations. Like the great Indo-Anglian novelist R.K. Narayan, Mistry is deeply imbued with the English literary tradition. Although he has described English as "technically my mother tongue," he is not one of those anglicized Indians who know no Indian language well. He speaks Hindi, Gujarati, and some Marathi.

His first book, a collection of short stories titled Tales From Firozsha Baag, appeared in 1987 and was short-listed for the Canadian Governor-General's Award in 1988. It was followed by Such a Long Journey (1991), which won both the Governor-General's Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It was made into a successful feature film in 1998. His next novel, A Fine Balance (1995), was also short-listed for the Booker and garnered prestigious Canadian, Commonwealth, and American prizes. It was recently discovered by Oprah Winfrey and became the last novel recommended in her book club, which doubtless enhanced Mistry's American readership. Family Matters has become his third novel to reach the Booker's final six.

That his books have fared so well in Canada is a tribute to that country's multicultural receptivity, for he has set little of his work there. He told an interviewer in 1991, "I'll write a novel set in Canada if it comes to me. I have no policies on this." Too many immigrant writers have done otherwise, with ill-judged haste. Mistry has repeatedly insisted on the commonality of human experience, having been prepared by his Indian background to recognize that "racism is not just a North American evil" (Other Solitudes, 1990). On the other hand, as the father observes of his son Kersi's writing in the story "Swimming Lessons," Mistry's fiction interests Western readers because it conveys "the important difference" of a world they do not know.

India's 'internal sickness'

Mistry's collection of eleven linked short stories, Tales From Firozsha Baag, re-creates the Parsi world of his childhood and youth, closing with a story in which one of the protagonists has immigrated to Toronto. It is, overall, lighter in tone and subject matter than the two novels that follow, which are set in the distressed India of the 1970s. (Mistry left in 1975, the year of Indira Gandhi's notorious "Emergency" proclamation.)

Set in Bombay's Parsi community, Such a Long Journey focuses on the life of Gustad Noble and his family in an apartment block, the Khodadad Building. Gustad has left blackout paper on the windows since the Indo- Chinese war of 1962, to be followed by that with Pakistan over Kashmir and, in the novel's time frame, the third war in 1971, which led to the formation of Bangladesh. His wife, Dilnavaz, feels their life is permanently darkened. Gustad's father has recently died; now Gustad the patriarch struggles alone to support his family. A consuming ambition for his son Sohrab divides father from son. Divisive also are his ties of friendship, principally those involving his dearest friend, Major Bilmoria, who becomes entangled in a fictional parallel to the Nagarwal Case, one of many unsolved counts against Gandhi. The major is ruined, betrayed by his all-powerful "Mistress." Gustad becomes innocently embroiled--the first of many among Mistry's characters whose personal life is not immune from India's internal sickness.

The novel is not optimistic about India, seeing it from the perspective of an insecure minority, in a Bombay falling under the control of the "bloody Shiv Sena, wanting to make the rest of us second-class citizens." A contrasting, ideal vision is symbolized by a pavement artist's transforming, with Gustad's encouragement, a black, stinking wall near the Khodadad Building into an interfaith mural, "a shrine for all faiths and religions." With characteristic realism, the novel's last public act is the wall's demolition as part of a superfluous road- widening scheme. Out of this failure, though, Gustad salvages reconciliation with his son, and, chastened by others' suffering, tears down the blackout paper. Mistry's broad, controlling vision expresses an idealism tempered by a difficult effort to pit individual humanity and self-sacrifice against squalid poverty and cynical despair.

Balance between hope and despair

Some will have been astonished by Oprah's choice of so uncompromising a tragedy for her book club. When A Fine Balance came out, some critics, who should have known better, thought its dark side overdrawn. In Family Matters, Mistry has a minor character make veiled reference to his own previous novel's reception, speaking of "a big book, full of horrors, real as life. But also full of life, and the laughter and dignity of ordinary people. . . . But some reviewers said no, no, things were not that bad. Especially foreign critics. You know they come here for two weeks and become experts." Singled out is "one poor woman ... a big professor at some university in England"--surely a reference to Germaine Greer, who commented that she could not recognize the Bombay she had seen, while teaching there for a few months, in the "dismal, dreary city" Mistry draws. (This reviewer, who was there in 1978, could.)

A Fine Balance is a richly detailed, humane narrative of the intertwined fates of four ordinary lives--of the dispossessed. They come together by chance at the height of Gandhi's "Emergency," which involved the jailing of political opponents and enforcement of "order" through, most notoriously, the sometimes forced sterilization of men and violent slum-clearances. The novel traces the harsh impact of political events upon personal life.

The main action centers on the cramped Bombay apartment of Dina Dalal, a young Parsi widow struggling to maintain her independence as a dressmaker. To her come Manek, an old friend's son from the north who plans to study at technical college, and the jobbing tailors Ishvar and Omprakash, an uncle and nephew from a rural village. They are descended from Dukhi, a chamaar (untouchable) who had his sons apprenticed as tailors to break out of caste subjection. Each member of this quartet strives in a convulsed society to transcend the constraints of birth, caste, or sex in a modern, urbanized world. Caste, however, remains the invisible line despite Mahatma Gandhi's revolutionary message. Mistry's narrative moves smoothly between the present and the past that formed the protagonists' lives and India's, contrasting the illusory hopes of independence with the bitter corruption of a society "where justice is sold to the highest bidder."

There is no facile deliverance for those who suffer but resist, seeking to preserve "a fine balance between hope and despair." Yet the dignity Mistry claims for them elicits the reader's heartfelt--if helpless-- compassion for those whose integrity persists in the teeth of tragedy. Manek's final witness, that "if there was an abundance of misery in the world, there was also sufficient joy," is tempered by his creator's relentless knowledge that it may not be enough to save. In tragedy's true spirit, the finer human qualities relieve but cannot cure society's ills.

A Fine Balance, both in time and place, invites comparison with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1980). Mistry's realist Balzacian mode, foreshadowed by his epigraph from Le Pere Goriot, involves the reader more deeply.

Inner weaknesses

Parsi family life has been the constant focus of Mistry's fiction. Few now remember that Bombay is a city the tiny Parsi community built and made prosper. Fewer still know that one of its leaders, Dadabhai Naoroji, was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the foremost architect of Indian nationalism. Considering the turn that nationalism has taken, with partition and now, in India, Hindu intolerance ascendant, the role the Westernized Parsi community played in shaping Indian independence becomes ironic. Close-knit and ingrown, that community is dwindling and in fifty years may scarcely exist. Like Mistry himself, its younger members emigrate or, defying tradition, marry outside.

Family Matters is set mostly in the mid-nineties. The Gandhis have fallen, but now Hindu chauvinism terrorizes through the dominant Shiv Sena Party, of whose rise we had learned in Such a Long Journey. It has been described by Rushdie (also Bombay born) as the "most overtly fundamentalist grouping to achieve office anywhere in India" (Imaginary Homelands, 1991). Mistry's narrative recalls the notorious destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in December 1992, followed by anti- Muslim riots fomented by the Shiv Sena. We learn of the tragic family history of Husain, a Muslim peon: "Husain and his Muslim neighbours watching as their chawl went up in flames, wondering where his wife and sons were ... and then four burning figures tumbling down the steps of the building, their smoking hands beating at the flames ... while the goondas sprinkled more kerosene from their cans over Husain's family."

In Family Matters, we are brought less close to such common Indian atrocities. Still, though they impinge only indirectly upon the Parsi family's life, they form a constant, menacing shadow, symptoms of a radically unstable society where "corruption is in the air we breathe." While the evils of that larger society are inescapable, it is the inner weaknesses of the family and community that Mistry exposes.

Nariman Vakeel is a retired, Shakespeare-quoting professor of English, whose seventy-ninth birthday is celebrated in the opening chapters. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, he is grudgingly cared for by his middle-aged, unmarried stepdaughter Coomy and stepson Jal, in a spacious apartment in the ironically named Chateau Felicity. It had been the family home, whose ownership Nariman has, Lear-like (as it proves), conveyed to his stepchildren. Nariman's own--and favorite-- daughter, Roxana, lives with her husband, Yezad Chenoy, manager of the Bombay Sports Emporium, in a cramped apartment at Pleasant Villa, given them by her father on their marriage. They have two sons, Murad, thirteen, and Jehangir, nine. Throughout we are kept aware of the children's reactions to their elders' crises, especially the imaginative Jehangir's, and see how those perceptions shape the growing generation.

Bitter recriminations mar the birthday celebration: Nariman's stepdaughter reproaches him (her brother is passive and pacific) for having "ruined" their lives. Behind her words lies a tale that will gradually unfold, largely through Nariman's musing, unvoiced memories. The birthday atmosphere is lightened for Nariman by the Chenoy family's visit; their evident happiness is consoling. Seemingly, it surmounts their relatively straitened circumstances and Yezad's frustration at being denied immigration to Canada, where "they don't need a sports goods salesman. ... Study useful things," he advises Jehangir, "computers, M.B.A., and they'll welcome you."

One of India's teeming arts graduates, Yezad is ill equipped to enter the Westernizing world. Unlike the family's women, he finds no consolation in following Parsi traditional life. In this he and Nariman are akin; both also feel they have failed their family. Varying the significance of the phrase from Mistry's previous novel, Nariman's father had lamented that his son, muddled by book learning, lacked "that fine balance between tradition and modernness." Pulled against tradition by love for a Goanese girl, Lucy Braganza, Nariman had failed either to renounce her fully or to love the Parsi widow he married out of filial duty. Though Coomy taxes him with "ruin," to more sympathetic observers, his has been a tragic life.

An accident and its consequences

When the headstrong Nariman breaks a leg on one of his stumbling walks, he becomes bedridden, wholly dependent. The Lear who has given all away must now endure a resentful stepdaughter's care. Soon exhausted by that labor, Coomy contrives to transfer him to the Chenoys' overcrowded flat. Despite Roxana's self-sacrificial effort, his presence strains the family's emotional and financial resources. For a time, though, the more loving home offers an illusory happiness, especially in the boys' growing attachment to their grandfather. We become intimate with a family that really seems to validate a minor character's righteous dictum, that "without family, nothing else matters."

The sense of family is extended in the portrayal of Yezad's employer, the "humanity-embracing" Punjabi Vikram Kapur. Made a refugee in childhood by the 1947 partition, Kapur values Bombay as sanctuary and home. "In her heart," he believes, "there is room for everyone who wants to make a home here." Privately, Yezad is skeptical: "Right, thought Yezad, fourteen million people, half of them living in slums, eating and shitting in places not fit for animals." The optimistic Kapur sees rather the redeeming moments, as in the mutual help of fellow passengers on the hazardously overcrowded Bombay express. Yezad cannot help being impressed by his employer's compassionate care for Husain, the peon who lost his family in the Babri Mosque riots. In a comically naive gesture of religious syncretism, Kapur devises a window display with a cricketing Santa Claus. Bizarre rival Santas then burgeon along the street, while Yezad reflects: "Santa Claus with mask and machine-gun would be a fitting Christmas for the Shiv Sena. Or any other party, for that matter."

At a level of appalling extremity, Husain's tragedy stems from the same poisonous root as the Vakeel family's unhappiness: religious bigotry. Nariman's error had been to submit to it, but his unassuaged desire led to the fates of both Lucy and his unloved Parsi wife. This tragic linkage created festering resentment in Coomy, whose revolt against caring for him in old age thrusts him as a burden upon the hard-pressed Chenoy family. Their ensuing acts and misfortunes become Nariman's involuntary legacy and, implicitly, a somewhat ironic commentary upon the Parsis' demanding ethic of "good thoughts, good works, and good deeds."

Thus we see Yezad, who has striven to live decently despite trying circumstance, slipping into self-corruption to maintain his family and provide for Nariman. He gambles riskily and resorts to worse; playing deceitfully upon his employer's idealism, he adopts a stratagem that inadvertently helps precipitate Kapur's cruel fate at the hands of Shiv Sena thugs. A trivial offense undoes the Bombay lover: his refusal to change his store's name to the politically correct Mumbai Emporium.** The police will make no effort to find his killers. As Yezad's professional letter-writing friend Vilas, the voice of relentless realism, observes: "Justice is a mirage." The Dickensian worthy employer, whom Kapur resembles, meets an un-Dickensian end.

Fathers and sons

Unrelieved tragedy would destroy all hope in humanity; it would not be tragedy but crass causality and accident. Realistically characterized, people are not simply good--although some can be evil incarnate. Such are Kapur's killers, or Husain's family's--or those who perpetrate the village atrocity of which Vilas learns from one of his peasant customers, a too common tale, "which could be a full-length tragedy," of the traditionally sanctioned mutilation and killing by the girl's own family of young lovers who transgress caste.

In Mistry's foreground, both major and minor characters struggle, against circumstance and in a society riddled with deadly enmities, to maintain their ideals. Such is the pretty Goanese teacher, Helen Alvarez, whose social idealism inspires the young Jehangir. Seeing promise in him, she charges him with monitoring his classmates' homework, only to suffer disillusion when she discovers he has abused her trust by taking bribes from rich boys. Yet we know that he is motivated by an unselfish desire to aid his parents. Alvarez feels bound to expose him to Yezad, who, ironically, has himself secretly gambled away, in the hope of quick gain, money that his family needs.

Learning of this, the long-suffering Roxana forgives but cannot assuage Yezad's guilt. Bitterly, he recalls his own father's contrasting courage and honesty, commemorated by his employer with a wall clock Yezad has allowed none but himself to wind. His ill-judged efforts are paralleled by his son Jehangir's and, more successfully, Murad's--whose saving of his bus money to assist the family's finances arouses Yezad's pride, as indeed does Jehangir's flawed effort.

The sons' example helps to redeem their father, who is moved to restore money he had been tempted to steal from his trusting employer. At the same time, Yezad learns to imitate his sons' compassion for Nariman. When Roxana observes him relieving his father-in-law's helpless indignities, it is a moving moment:

He returned the feeding-cup to the kitchen, and Roxana thought he was bringing it to remind her.

"But it's empty," she said, looking inside, puzzled for just a fraction of a second before understanding: he had served Pappa. Her lip trembled.

So Yezad proceeds, trimming the old man's nails as "tears of gratitude" silently flow, shaving his stubble:

He finished, and wiped off the left-over flecks from the nostrils and ear-lobes. Gathering up the shaving things, he turned. He saw her in the doorway, saw her eyes overflowing with gratitude, so intense, he averted his own in guiltiness.

A comfortable home

Through his slow dying Nariman speaks little, but he has been the narrative's quiet thinker. The passage where Yezad ministers to him may remind us of an earlier one where Nariman lies in hospital after his accident, watching the patient, menial activities of a "wardboy," little younger than he, probably himself a Parkinson's sufferer:

He made up for the imperfection of his hands with the perfection of his smile. A smile of enlightenment, thought Nariman, so like Voltaire's in old age.

And how did one acquire such enlightenment, he wondered; here, in a grim ward, collecting faeces and urine from the beds of the lame and the halt and the diseased? Or were these the necessary conditions? For learning that young or old, rich or poor, we all stank at the other end?

Yezad's enlightenment in adversity takes a different form. Jobless after Kapur's murder, he searches vainly for fresh employment. Gradually, he turns for consolation to the religion he had slighted. Soon, his faith becomes his sole resource, disconcerting his sons and the now speechless Nariman, who becomes disturbed when Yezad prays over him.

When Coomy's stratagems to get rid of her father end in the tragic farce of her violent death, her conscience-ridden brother Jal offers to make amends by providing "a comfortable home" for them all at Chateau Felicity. Roxana embraces their good luck like a dream, but Yezad "knew God was firmly in control." So absorbed is he now in his narrow, intense belief that he sees all that has happened as "God's plan. If he wants us in Chateau Felicity, he will make it work." Mistry abstains from comment on this self-centered faith.

Five years later

A brief epilogue is narrated by the perceptive Jehangir, now fourteen. Nariman has died, but despite the family's improved fortunes, old patterns reassert themselves. Yezad is a devout, dogmatic Zoroastrian: "By and large, his fervent embrace of religion makes her [Roxana] happy. She agrees with him that the entire chain of events, starting with Grandpa's accident and ending with Mr. Kapur's murder, was God's way of bringing him to prayer."

Yezad's ritualism is mocked by Murad, as once Yezad himself--and Nariman--had done. *When Murad finds a non-Parsi girlfriend, the old pattern of conflict between Nariman and his father, willing "to trade familial happiness for traditional beliefs," is reenacted. Murad accuses Yezad of Hitlerlike bigotry. Although the quarrel is papered over with a resigned paternal embrace on Murad's eighteenth birthday, their future remains questionable. The last page focuses on Jehangir, who feels he has lost his "real father" but remembers Nariman's stories and wisdom with affection. His grandfather's legacy is contained perhaps in his dissembling affirmative when Roxana anxiously asks, "Aren't you happy?"

There is no comfortable resolution, only a pause in the constant to- and-fro struggle, generation by generation, to attain individual and familial happiness and freedom, "to fly by those nets," in the words of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, "of nationality, language, religion." This is a universal subject, and it is felt as such; how it manifests itself is incidental. Those addicted to critical theory will find little to exercise them in Family Matters. In the perennial realist tradition, it deals with life's actual business and how we live with others.n

* Shiv Sena: the army of Shiva, takes its name not from the god but from Shivaji, the seventeenth century Maratha guerrilla leader opposed to the Muslim Mughal Empire. Its present dominance was foreseen by V.S. Naipaul in India: A Wounded Civilization (1977).

** Mumbai: Bombay's original name, now restored, probably derived from Mumba Bai or Mumba Devi, a Hindu goddess.
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Title Annotation:Family Matters
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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