From the appearance of his first published work, the short story collection Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), which appeared in the United States as Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag (1989), Rohinton Mistry has been recognized as an outstanding contemporary writer. His blend of unsentimental compassion and uncompromising realism, his sense of tragedy, and his gift for comedy have led critics to compare him to such other fiction writers as the Irish James Joyce, whose novel Ulysses (1922) described the thoughts and interactions of his characters during one day in Dublin; Leo Tolstoy, whose epic novel War and Peace (1865-1869) placed generals and aristocrats against the backdrop of Russia during the Napoleonic invasion; and Charles Dickens who, in works such as David Copperfield(1849-1850), re-created the England of his youth. Like these authors, Mistry aims at defining a people and a place. The setting and, in a sense, the subject of all of Rohinton Mistry’s works is his native Bombay; however, he also uses Bombay as a metaphor for twentieth century India.
In his early works, Mistry sought to achieve his purpose with a small cast of characters functioning in a very limited area within the city. That was his approach in both Tales from Firozsha Baag and the novel Such a Long Journey (1991). By contrast, A Fine Balance (1996) was panoramic, much like War and Peace, and appropriately so, since the aim of that novel was to show India during Indira Ghandi’s national state of emergency in 1975, with its legal, political, and social structures in a shambles and some of its people murdered, others in flight.
With Family Matters, Mistry has returned to the narrower focus he used in his first two books. The characters involved in the main plot of this novel are all members of one extended family, along with a few close friends and neighbors, and the two additional characters in the subplot are a fellow employee of one of the family members and his employer. Moreover, this family is made up of Parsis, or Zoroastrians, members of one of India’s smallest religious sects. However, the scope of Family Matters is much broader than one might assume, for it deals with an increasingly common problem, the care of an aging relative in declining health, and it treats this situation as a test of character. The members of the extended family are seen choosing to be spiteful or forgiving, selfish or selfless, tolerant or intolerant, and suffering the consequences of the choices they have made.
Nariman Vakeel, the patriarch of the family and to some extent the central character in the novel, is a gentle, witty man, a retired English professor, whose former students still have fond memories of him. He has been living in his large home with his stepdaughter, Coomy Contractor, and his stepson, Jal Contractor, both of whom are unmarried. Coomy and Jal both chose to keep the name of their birth father, even though they were adopted legally by Nariman. The atmosphere in “Chateau Felicity,” where the three live, is hardly pleasant, primarily because Coomy is constantly finding fault with either Jal or Nariman, whose presence in what was his own house clearly annoys her. She has never forgiven Nariman for his part in her mother’s unhappy life and tragic death. Now that he is more or less at her mercy, she can have her revenge, either by making rules that humiliate him, such as setting times when he may go to the bathroom, or by attempting to deny him his few remaining pleasures, such as his customary walk around the neighborhood. At the beginning of the novel, it is obvious that Coomy has long since made her choice as to how she will behave toward others and, unfortunately, Jal has become a passive partner in her self-centered and spiteful conduct since he is too timid to defy his sister.
The moral drama that is at the crux of Family Matters is soon transferred to the small apartment where Nariman’s daughter Roxana Chenoy lives with her husband Yezad and their two sons, Murad and Jehangir. Even in their cramped quarters, living on a very tight budget, the Chenoys take pleasure in each other’s company and generally enjoy life. However, each of them is tested when Coomy and Jal dump Nariman on them, unannounced, his leg in a cast. Supposedly he is to stay only until his broken ankle has mended and he can walk again; however, while he is at Roxana’s, Coomy deliberately damages the ceiling of her stepfather’s bedroom so that, pretending that there are structural defects in the house, she can keep him away permanently.
In actuality, Roxana and Yezad are far less able to care for...
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