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Family Matters By Rohinton Mistry

Jacket: Paperback
Pages: 448 pages
Publisher:Vintage; (November 18, 2003)
Genre: Literary

Comments about the author: Mistry wrote his first short story, 'One Sunday', in 1983, winning First Prize in the Canadian Hart House Literary Contest (an award he also won the following year for his short story 'Auspicious Occasion'). It was followed in 1985 by the Annual Contributors' Award from the Canadian Fiction Magazine, and afterwards, with the aid of a Canada Council grant, he left his job to become a full-time writer.

Review: Rohinton Mistry’s “Family Matters” comes close to being the Great Parsi Novel, capturing the essence of what it means to be part of the close-knit Parsi community. The book, while epic in proportions, focuses on the domestic trials that plague a Parsi family in Mumbai, India.

Stricken with Parkinson’s disease, Nariman Vakeel has become a burden to his stepchildren Jal and Coomy. When Nariman breaks his ankle and is confined to bed, Jal and Coomy decide that they can no longer tolerate his helplessness. They hand him over to their half-sister Roxana and her husband Yezad to look after.

But the cost of looking after an aged dependent – in addition to their two children Murad and Jehangir – quickly takes its toll on Roxana and Yezad’s finances, leading them to seek desperate ways to make ends meet.

“Family Matters” is made richer by the infusion of Parsi culture. Parsis form a minority in India, and are regarded by some as the Jews of India. Having fled from Persia to escape Muslim invasion, they were welcomed in India, and made their home in Mumbai. The Parsi community in India adopted a modified form of the language Gujarati as their mother tongue, but held on to their Zoroastrian religion, praying in fire-temples where a holy flame is kept burning continually. Instead of burial or cremation, Parsis bring their dead to the Towers of Silence to be eaten by vultures. The reason for this practice is to keep the elements of earth and fire pure.

Purity, in fact, is central to the Parsi ethos. Parsis believe in keeping their race pure, and frown on intermarriage. Orthodox Parsis believe in excommunicating Parsis who marry outside of the clan. As more Parsi women marry later, if at all, and have fewer children, the Parsis face the danger of dying out.

This phenomenon is highlighted in a conversation between several of the book’s characters, when someone declares, “Vultures and crematoriums, both will be redundant… if there are no Parsis to feed them.” In fifty years’ time, he says, Parsis will be “extinct, like dinosaurs… They’ll have to study our bones, that’s all… You will be named Jalosauras, I will be Shapurjisauras… And our inspector here, who loves his Scotch, will be the powerful Whiskysauras, a magnum of Blue Label tucked under his arm.”

But Mistry does not only focus on the situation of Parsis. He is also frank about the problems plaguing India in general. He bravely tackles controversial issues: the trying circumstances; the poverty; the immense difficulty families face just to make ends meet; the failings of the political process.

But by telling the story of a single family, we see the impact of such failings on the ordinary lives of people: Yezad, as the family’s breadwinner, is the only one in the family allowed to shower on a daily basis, because of strict water rationing; Roxana can only cook diluted, meatless curries for her family, because she hasn’t got enough money.

For its moving portrayal of life in India, Mistry’s “Family Matters” was shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize. Mistry's effortless prose makes reading this thick tome a breeze.

Other books by Mistry, such as “Tales from Firozsha Baag”, “Such a Long Journey” and “A Fine Balance”, have all been critically acclaimed for their focus on life in India. Mistry is clearly able to comment on Indian society and politics insightfully, but chooses to take a step away from all that in "Family Matters", zooming in instead on a single family. The result is a novel that is more intimate, more deftly executed, able to whet your appetite for Mistry’s next offering.

— Reviewed by: Wenkai Tay


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