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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Family Matters (2002) by Rohinton Mistry

Book Review
Family Matters (2002)
by Rohinton Mistry

   I wonder what Parsi-Canadian author Rohinton Mistry has been doing since Family Matters was published in 2002.  He hasn't published a novel since then, and a quick Google search barely turns up any internet era news.  Both Family Matters and A Fine Balance tell the stories of multi-generational families living in Bombay/Mumbai in the 20th century, but Family Matters is the book that most closely mirrors Mistry's family background as followers of Zoroastrianism living in India after leaving Iran/Persia after Islam deposed the Zoroastrian monarchy there. Zoroastrianism generally gets credit for being the first Monotheistic religion, and if you dig hard enough you can find that it directly influenced the development of Judaism, since Jews intellectuals were living in Persia for centuries prior to the crystallization of the old testament. 

   Zoroastrianism plays a background role in Family Matters- all the characters come from that faith, and adherence to its tenets, including a strict prohibition on intermarriage, play a big role in the plot, but other than those two observations there isn't a whole lot to distinguish Family Matters from the Hindu family of A Fine Balance.  Like all books set in present day India, the mere day to day experience of living, even as a member of the educated elite class comes as a shock to any western reader.

  The struggle to maintain cleanliness, central to the Hindu faith and Indian civilization as a whole, can only be understood in terms of just how lacking the large cities of India lack it.   Here, the family patriarch, retired professor of Western Literature Nariman, experience a crisis when he breaks his ankle- already suffering from Parkinson's disease.  Initially living with his two middle aged stepchildren, he is shunted to his daughter, who lives in an apartment he purchased for her with her husband, a sales man at a local sporting goods store.

   The day to day struggle of caring for Nariman consumes most of Family Matters.  What exists outside of that thread of plot resembles plot points from A Fine Balance, specifically the temptation and peril of corruption in a culture where avoiding it is impossible.  Mistry extends this familial struggle down to the children in Family Matters- no one is spared. 

  It says something that Family Matters is almost lighthearted compared to A Fine Balance, which, after all, is mostly about the lifetime consequences of incest perpetrated by a father against his daughter.  Compared to that, cleaning up the diarrhea of a 75 year old man being forced to live in the hallway of his daughter's two bedroom apartment is a walk in the park.

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