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 husband, Yezad, and her two children, Murad and Jehangir. Nariman, given to quoting from Shakespeare and Marlowe, is not the only one who detects a comparison, very quickly, with King Lear.
That is, in effect, the entire story. There are flashbacks, here and there, to Nariman’s thwarted love in his youth for a non-Parsi girl, and unravelings of other secrets from his past, but with Mistry one always feels that his interest lies less in the secrets than in the past itself: nostalgia has a strong part in this novel, not least because the fast-dwindling Parsi community, thanks to intermarriage and small families, now numbers fewer than 100,000 people worldwide. There are assorted neighbors and bosses, many of them with such memorable (but typically Parsi) names as Daisy Ichhaporia, and there is a man who, as a sideline, sits outside a bookshop and writes or reads letters for illiterate laborers who have come to Bombay from the countryside. As he shares with us stories of fourteen-year-old girls sold off to sixty-year-old widowers, or young lovers hanged for meeting across caste lines, he offers Mistry a chance to suggest how the writer can speak for the forgotten. For the most part, though, the novel’s pages are simply devoted to portraits of people crowding in on one another in a city where daily life is full of bawdy jokes and earnest homilies, and tomorrow has no certainty.
Mistry never shows any interest in playing up the exotic aspects of his India, or his Parsi setting; and yet his evocation of the streets and sounds of jostling Bombay is almost painfully alive. We smell the spices burning in the kitchen, we hear the shouts of tradesmen from the street, and we come upon an English that has almost never been caught, except by Salman Rushdie. (“They laughed again, and Roxana said that was enough gayla-gaanda for one morning.”) Characters whistle a theme from a Laurel and Hardy movie, make puns on Paganini, and pass storefronts where Santa’s reindeer are dressed in cricketers’ whites. Mistry works to bring affection and humor and philosophizing together:
“What a pleasure to meet Professor Vakeel’s youngest,” said Mr. Rangarajan, shaking hands with Roxana. “And are you following in your esteemed father’s footsteps, as educator and broadener of minds?”
She shook her head. “I’m just a housewife.”
“Just?” Mr. Rangarajan was aghast. “What are you saying, dear lady? Housewifery is a most important calling, requiring umpteen talents. Without housewife there is no home; without home, no family. And without family, nothing else matters, everything from top to bottom falls apart or descends into chaos. Which is basically the malady of the West. Would you not agree, Professor Vakeel?”
“I don’t think they have a monopoly,” said Nariman.
Readers who recall Mistry’s first collection of stories, fifteen years ago, will note that his settings (Chaupatty Beach and the middle-class Bombay apartment-block called Firozsha Baag), his props (dentures and Enid Blyton books), and even his situations—Parkinson’s disease and the humiliation of innocents by hoodlums in the streets and by infirmities at home—have hardly changed at all. The first page of his first book introduced us to a man emerging from a w.c. and shouting at the long-suffering wife who was married off to him when she was sixteen (Mistry has a keen sense of the lures and indiscretions of the body, and of all the ways it lets us down). In Family Matters the action is updated to the mid-Nineties, when the city is still on edge after the Hindu–Muslim riots of three years before, and Shiv Sena Hindu nationalists regularly threaten to beat up everyone who doesn’t change his store’s name from “Bombay” to “Mumbai.” Yet beneath the surface, nothing has really changed. Mistry is one of those fortunate writers who found his setting in his earliest work, and has managed, in its small radius, to find a universe.
At the same time, however, he has mastered the art of combining those early sketches in a full narrative that is affecting and deeper than the sum of its impressive parts. Where his first book flickered with italicized words for all the particular rites and goods of the Parsi world, now he leaves the same words in roman type, as if to make clear that their strangeness to Western readers is not his point; always, in his fiction, he is trying to stress not how different these faraway people are from the rest of us, but how close. He is among the most distinguished of the Indian writers currently visible, partly because he does not try to make India itself his main subject or his selling point.
His real territory is the divided heart. Like Graham Greene in a way, Mistry is a moral ironist—a humanist, that is, supple enough to see that happy endings are rarely possible when right is up against right, or up against wrong in a world in which wrong holds all the power. People come to regret their acts of compassion in his books, and half-wish they could be as wily as the crooked order around them. And though corruption in his world, as in Greene’s, is always located in some larger body—the government, the bureaucracy, or even just a testing providence—it is alarming precisely because it can so easily affect the lives of the well-intentioned.
As soon as Roxana agrees to take her ailing father into her overcrowded apartment, for example, she strains her relations with her husband (himself a fond and generally good-natured man), and strains, even more, the family’s already overstretched finances. (Housing prices are indeed a crippling concern in a Bombay where rents are often as high as those of Tokyo or New York, even as five million people live on the streets). In desperation, Roxana’s husband is driven to trying his hand at running an illegal lottery, aided by a flirtatious woman next door, and sometimes to cursing his wife, even as he knows he loves her. And watching his parents squabble, their younger son, Jehangir, decides he will do anything—anything at all—to help them with their problems, even if it means taking bribes in his capacity as a “Homework Monitor.” Roxana’s act of kindness, then, sets about the trail of circumstances that brings her soft-hearted nine-year-old son to the very corruption that is destroying the city around them.
Typical of everything that is subtle and true in the book is the way in which one character, in the middle of misfortunes, decides to stop off at the Parsi fire temple on his way home from work, in search of some kind of calm and consolation in a city that’s “like a patient in intensive care. Before long, he has become so attached to the faith that he was never interested in before that he turns into something of a fanatic himself, as intolerant as the local Shiv Sena thugs he reviles. Meanwhile, the cunning stepdaughter, Coomy—whom we have taken to be Nariman’s Goneril—is shown at one point with “tears of empathy” in her eyes and is later found to have secretly stashed away a family heirloom to help the nephews she’s never seemed to notice.
Mistry locates such moments with a surgeon’s precision, as if to suggest that no feelings or motives are ever unmixed. Suspicious always of explanations or theories, he refuses to allow his reader to settle into easy pieties. As with Greene again, many of his scenes take the form of long discussions between friends as they try to puzzle out the injustices—and possibilities—of the world. Yezad’s boss, for example, is given to extolling Bombay as a miracle of tolerance, a “tropical Camelot” and a model of the Hinduism known for “welcoming all creeds and beliefs and dogmas and theologies.” Every time he delivers such sentiments, which might seem close to Mistry’s own, his friend Yezad puts him gently in his place. And when the same idealist decides it is his duty to rescue the city he loves by running in a municipal election, Yezad begins to long for him to undertake the dangerous mission, not so that Bombay can be revived, but mostly so that he himself may get promoted, and in the process improve his household’s finances. Even when a good man dies, Mistry recognizes, a part of us starts thinking about how his death will make our lives easier (or more difficult)—and then another part tries to admonish the thought.
This being India, the characters are never slow to meditate on such topics; they are constantly discussing fortune and mortality and goodness, and all the ways in which human beings suffer if they give in to an often whimsical-seeming Fate, and suffer if they don’t. “There’s only one way to defeat the sorrow and sadness of life,” Nariman says at one point. “With laughter and rejoicing.” Another character, typically, asks, “What is this absurd force called destiny?” Mistry observes them all with a quiet, skeptical tolerance: when Mahatma Gandhi is invoked, as he often is here, it is generally to suggest that he would throw up his hands in despair if confronted with the Bombay of today.
There is a moment, near the beginning of Ian McEwan’s new novel Atonement, in which one of his characters, contemplating his future as a doctor, imagines how the study of literature might help him in his healing task:
Birth, death, and frailty in between. Rise and fall—this was the doctor’s business, and it was literature’s too. He was thinking of the nineteenth-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment; his kind of doctor would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable; he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind.
McEwan includes the reflection, with characteristic irony, just before a four-letter word in a letter slips by mistake into the wrong hands, and so explodes that very world of high-minded innocence. His concern, sophisticated and worldly, is with whether, after two world wars, such noble ideas of purpose can survive in a much less hopeful world. Yet to an uncanny extent his description begins to catch what Mistry is about, as he moves around his characters like a doctor, anxious to bring them to happiness and health, yet keenly aware that most matters are outside his control, that triumphs are likely to prove temporary, and that compassion itself can be a liability in a world that is seldom tender. The “fine balance” that gave his great novel its title refers to the balance that many of us, like a doctor, must arrive at, between hopefulness and realism, between determination and faith.
Visitors to India, even in the twenty-first century, are often surprised by how heavily the recent British past still weighs upon the present, with P.G. Wodehouse still dominating many a bookshop, and schoolchildren routinely asked (as in Family Matters) to memorize Tennyson. What this means in fiction, though, is that Indian writers from the middle classes, writing in English, are naturally connected to a nineteenth-century tradition that has never been displaced in India (as it has in almost every other English-speaking country). Marriages are often still arranged, and young men and women are subject to as many family pressures as in Jane Austen; city streets still pulse with the energy and poverty of Dickens’s London; and—most important of all, perhaps—people still carry on their lives as if religion had not been unsettled by science, and Nietzsche had not arrived to tell them about the death of God. In writers such as Vikram Seth and Anita Desai—and, preeminently, Rohinton Mistry—the mere transcription of the Indian world around them falls into a nineteenth-century form as it would never do for, say, Martin Amis in London or Don DeLillo in New York.
In some ways, this closeness to a great tradition, and to an earnest and unembarrassed interest in character and story, may be as much a source of the power of contemporary Indian fiction as are the more obvious lures of magic realism; and it begins to explain why Bombay is becoming as central a location in English literature as London was in Victoria’s time. It also means, inevitably, that readers of a more modern cast of mind may grow impatient with a book like Family Matters, which takes a hundred leisurely pages to settle into its family situation. Scenes in which a small boy tries to protect his grandfather from bad dreams, or in which a violinist plays Bach partitas to a dying man, may strike more hardened souls as too old-fashioned. Some readers in Canada have suggested that Mistry sees Bombay only as an out-of-date exile might (his twenty-first-century teenagers show no interest in either MTV or computers).
There is a sense, too, in this book that Mistry is, as always, trying to push himself further, and that he sometimes strays from the ground he covers so beautifully to matters for which his worried kindness is less well suited. In the passages in which characters discuss Bombay as a mecca of multicultural tolerance that could serve as a beacon for a pluralist world, they come very close to sounding like Salman Rushdie’s people, though without the furious energy and vigorous combativeness of Rushdie, whose sentences and paragraphs are themselves a loud argument for multiculturalism. (It’s easy to forget that Rushdie is always at his best, and most heartfelt, in evoking a Bombay that he, too, has seldom seen since boyhood.) In all Mistry’s books, the reaching for a larger political point is never quite as convincing as the simple domestic scenes of which he is a master, getting us to care—and even pray—for his characters, as many reviewers have noted, as almost no other contemporary writer can do.
For much the same reason, perhaps, the endings of his books have never been their strong points, and, unlike Graham Greene, Mistry doesn’t bring together his larger reflections on society and his individual dramas as tightly as he might. In Family Matters, one section at the end is narrated in the first person and, for me, as soon as Mistry relinquishes his third-person perspective, with its air of hovering compassion, something is lost. Instead of seeing every person from within, we are locked in just one perspective, and something of the watchful tone that so distinguishes his voice is gone.
In his first book of stories, the weakest was the one written in the first person and, moreover, in the voice of a lonely exile in a Toronto apartment building, sending letters back to the swarming Bombay he misses. The language in that story was, deliberately of course, flat and displaced, and there was just a trace of self-consciousness in the way the parents back home tried to figure out their writer son, much as a reader or reviewer might. (“All his stories are about Bombay, he remembers every little thing about his childhood, he is thinking about it all the time even though he is ten thousand miles away.”)
Mistry’s great gift, in nearly all his writing, is to eliminate every trace of self-consciousness, and to disappear so naturally into his people that nothing seems to come between us and their anguished hopes. His freedom from postmodernist games, and from mythmaking, is, in fact, part of what makes him so refreshing and able to draw blood. Family Matters does not aspire to the epic grandeur of A Fine Balance, and yet it moves and engages at every moment. If you take “Matters” to be a noun, the title could not be more everyday or drab. If you take it to be a verb, though, that same title sounds like a statement of purpose—and belief. Taking what is mundane and familiar and turning it into something humanly important is, one could say, the singular accomplishment of this writer of enduring gifts.
October 24, 2002