Passage to Bombay

Rohinton Mistry
Rohinton Mistry; drawing by David Levine

Rohinton Mistry writes what could be called neorealist novels, in honor of the simple, moving tales of struggle and affliction that distinguished the Italian films of the early Fifties (and continue to this day in, say, the films coming out of revolutionary Iran). Though Mistry has lived in Toronto since 1975, when he emigrated from India at the age of twenty-three and began working in a bank, all his four books are all set in a Bombay that he recreates and agonizes over with the close attention to detail of a homesick exile. Unlike many of the writers of the South Asian diaspora, he doesn’t engage in manic polemics or god-filled flights of fancy; instead, his stories are careful, patient accounts of people trying to find answers in a world that seldom offers any. Reading him, you are less in the company of Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy than in that of Victor Hugo, perhaps, or Thomas Hardy.

It is typical of Mistry that, with each of his books, he has steadily expanded his range. His first work, Tales from Firozsha Baag, in 1987 (released in the US with the more or less generic title Swimming Lessons), laid out his territory, with small, everyday vignettes from an apartment complex in Bombay peopled by Mistry’s own group, Parsis, or Zoroastrians, who, pushed out of Persia in the seventh century with the triumph of Islam, have long lived and flourished around Bombay. His first novel, in 1991, Such a Long Journey, took one such story and extended it to the length of a novel, a tale of two Parsi friends and the larger corruption they’re drawn into in the Seventies during the turbulent days of Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship. His next novel, A Fine Balance, in 1995, was a six-hundred-page masterpiece that took us so deeply into the lives of four residents of Bombay, especially a pair of tailors struggling to get by on the city’s streets, that few of its readers will forget it. To my mind it is the strongest novel to come out of India in English.

In Family Matters—the title, typically, is at once defiantly plain and quietly punning—Mistry returns to a much smaller scale in a story that turns upon the travails of a Parsi family in the Bombay of the Nineties (though it could, in almost every respect, be the Bombay of the Seventies, the period in which his other books are set). Nariman Vakeel, a seventy-nine-year-old retired professor of English literature, suffering from Parkinson’s, is staying with his impatient stepdaughter, Coomy, and a dithering stepson, Jal, when they decide that they can no longer put up with the difficulty of tending to an incontinent old man. Devising a plan to foist him upon their endlessly patient half-sister, Roxana, they transport their victim, a wry and gracious presence throughout, to the tiny two-room flat that Roxana shares with her…

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