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The Burden of Kinship, the Ties of Blood

FAMILY MATTERS: A Novel, By Rohinton Mistry, Alfred A. Knopf: 440 pp., $26

September 29, 2002|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph.

In a famous poem, W.H. Auden once wrote: "We must love one another or die." He later withdrew the poem ("September 1, 1939") and repudiated the sentiment; but the line kept recurring to me while reading Rohinton Mistry's novel "Family Matters," in which the family death rate that is due to lack of love approaches about half a dozen.

Mistry's title is nicely ambiguous. Is "Family Matters" noun-verb or adjective-noun? In Bombay's Parsee society, family clearly matters a great deal. But coping with the actual matters--emotional, financial, medical, psychological, physical--that family relations impose, too often, as Mistry shows in devastating detail, wears away the love, replacing it with sour distaste, unacknowledged fear, simmering resentment and sheer desperation.

Hopeless dreams breed bizarre and fantastic solutions. Remembered wrongs poison the mind. Kinship becomes a burden, the ties of blood an arbitrary imposition. Poverty exacerbates every problem and hones the fine edge of hysteria.

The tentacles of family relationships, like mother-in-law jokes and quarrels over wills, are universal, and, as the collected fiction of Ivy Compton-Burnett amply testifies, having a reasonable amount of money doesn't always let you off the hook, either. Those characters in "Family Matters" who, near the end, are rescued by a Dickensian-type windfall soon start working up a new set of irritations.

In one sense, Mistry's Bombay simply becomes a crowded, garish, exotic background for a generic study of siblings, stepchildren, spouses and lovers under pressure: indeed, in a pressure cooker. (Mistry, with his sharp eye for symbolism, describes a pressure-cooker exploding, plastering the kitchen walls with yellow dal and tomato gravy. "Looks like a Jackson Pollock," says an admiring visitor.) The book-club interest in this novel, and its 75,000 initial print run, strongly suggest that the human relationships dissected here transcend national (Indian) and religious (Zarathustrian) boundaries.

Mistry's central, and largely passive, character, around whom the action revolves, is Nariman Vakeel, retired professor of English literature at Bombay University, and, in his late 70s, rapidly succumbing to Parkinson's disease.

At least as lethal, long-term, are the various decisions he has made, or has allowed to be made for him, earlier in his life. There is, first and foremost, his long and essentially unresolved love affair with Lucy Braganza, a Catholic, and hence anathema to Nariman's relatives, who pressure him into marrying a suitable Parsee widow, Yasmin.

Yasmin's children, Coomy and Jal, fiercely resent their new stepfather, mostly because he can't bring himself to break free from Lucy, which makes their mama miserable, often melodramatically so. On the other hand, they're prepared to spoil the one daughter, Roxana, that Yasmin bears her new husband. Resentment, however, flares again when, on Roxana's marriage to a sporting goods salesman, Yezad Chenoy, Nariman insists on buying them an apartment.

The two apartments--their respective complexes are named, with not-so-subtle irony, Chateau Felicity and Pleasant Villa--play a major part in the development of family relations. In the vast, rundown and gloomy retreat of Chateau Felicity, Nariman lives in retirement as the unwelcome responsibility of stepdaughter Coomy, whose spinsterish irritability keeps the atmosphere permanently gritty. Her brother Jal says yes to everything and spends his time playing the market.

Meanwhile, across town, the Chenoys' tiny flat is bursting at the seams with them and their two near-adolescent boys. The symbolism of opposites--big apartment, small childless group; minuscule flat, growing rumbustious family--is duly hammered home: Mistry never shrinks from whacking his readers over the head with the obvious, one factor (I suspect) in his undoubted popularity.

The main thrust of the novel is provided by Coomy's frantic and successful effort, after a horrific week or two of trying to cope with sponge baths and bedpans (no details spared), to unload her stepfather on the Chenoys and then to weasel out of taking him back. Even Roxana, who comes pretty close to that famous Victorian mythic figure, the Angel in the House, has her patience sorely tried.

No party in this family crisis has much money to spare: Nariman's bedridden presence breaks Roxana's budget just as it did Coomy's. And all the time, in the background, hinted at but only revealed toward the end, is the poisonous mystery of Yasmin's and Lucy's deaths.

It is in the various frantic, bizarre and inevitably self-destructive attempts to bring in more cash, or stave off Nariman's presence, that Mistry scores best. Coomy roughs up her own plaster ceilings trying to fake a cistern flood and gets killed when a beam falls on her head. Yezad drops a bundle on an illegal lottery, then sets up a shakedown to push his boss into running for municipal office and turning the business over to him.

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