||Bombay's Dark Hour
by by Irene D'Souza
Although, both Mistry and that erudite punmeister Salman Rushdie, ground their fiction in Bombay, Rushdie is more apt to acclaim his birthplace; he sees and savours the rose in the middle of the dung¨the cup may not runneth over with joy and mirth, but the inhabitants experience a joie de vivre, and we are convinced Bombay is as cosmopolitan as any other city. Mistry, by contrast, hones in on the dung: "Corruption is in the air we breathe. The nation specializes in turning honest people into crooks." His Bombay "is a dying city, rotting with pollution and garbage and corruption"; the city's oppressiveness envelops and suffocates the inhabitants.
Simply crossing a street is like negotiating a quagmire which may also be a death trap; the streets may not have landmines but there are dangers lurking to maim the innocent. In Such A Long Journey, the father suffers a crippled hip when he rescues his son from the deadly traffic. The beggars and outcasts suffer gruesome fates in A Fine Balance. In his new novel, we are prepared for a calamity, a mishap, an accident; the clues and cues appear on page one: "Now, Pappa, is it too much to ask? Please stay home, for your own good." Ignoring his family's pleas, Nariman Vakeel, a 79-year-old Parsi widower, suffering from Parkinson's disease, takes his daily constitutional, a stroll, and ends up slipping into a trench in the road fracturing his ankle.
Under the guise of a simple breakage, Mistry is able to develop a story of larger-scale upheavals; the simple splintering in the nuclear family (the microcosm) signals the unraveling of the larger community. In previous novels, the characters' fates foreshadowed and mirrored the historical: the 1971 war with Pakistan, was the setting for Such A Long Journey; while the 1975 state of emergency served as a tableau for A Fine Balance. Family Matters is set in the volatile times of Hindu fundamentalism and struggle for ethnic purity dividing Bombay into warring sectarian factions.
The tiny Parsi community (a sect that has more in common with Iranians) practices the Zoroastrian religion. In order to preserve culture and religion, intermarriage is fervently discouraged. Much to his parents' chagrin, Nariman, the sole offspring, falls in love with a Goan Catholic woman. They pressure him to leave her, and being an obedient son (some might say spineless), he marries a Parsi widow with two children. Although the marriage is steeped in bitterness and ends in devastating tragedy, a child Roxana is born. Mistry skips over a substantial period of his characters' lives. Roxana, now 35, is married with two sons. We surmise she was once loved by her half-siblings, Jal and Coomy, both unmarried, who live with Nariman in his magnificent but rundown flat in Chateau Felicity. Suffice to say, felicity or the semblance of anything close to it, was never allowed to penetrate the life of this family¨the decayed curtains covering the window, and Coomy's bitter rancour would block any ray of sunshine.
As Nariman's condition worsens, Coomy plots her revenge and removes Nariman from his ancestral home and transfers him to Pleasant Villa¨to Roxana and husband Yezad's tiny cramped flat. Pleasant Villa quickly becomes morbidly unpleasant.
Mistry's depiction of the day-to day struggles of an Indian family is gripping. The lack of choices, the search for redemption in a world where one conducts real-estate transactions with cash in suitcases, is achingly poignant, and the portrayal of Roxana's agonizing struggle with poverty, her irrepressible decency and optimism, and the way she copes with the resentments of her stepsiblings is unquestionably compelling.
However, when Mistry strays from the grander themes of fate and circumstance, focusing on the characters' inner flaws, or stages misfortune with fatalistic coincidences (a genre so well documented in Hindi movies), the story takes on the mien of melodrama. Take for instance, Coomy's death¨her skull is broken by a steel girder.
The same can be said of many of the subplots and the ponderous phrasing that punctuate the narrative¨there is no proverbial light at the end of this tunnel, there isn't even a beam! A professional letter writer, who strays in and out of the story, provides CNN-type bulletins of all the atrocities taking place in India. In keeping with the heart of darkness theme, the epilogue describes the liberal, optimistic agnostic Yezad's transformation into a narrow-minded religious fanatic¨a zealot. He will surely wreck havoc on his two growing sons and Roxana. The reader is left with a bitter taste, although the novel ends on the word happy. ˛