Shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize
One of the most interesting book trends of the nineties was the emergence
of a rich body of literature written in English by Indian authors
and from all corners of the globe: Arundhati Roy (India), Michael Ondaatje
(Canada), Salman Rushdie (England), Jhumpa Lahiri (United States), etc.
But my personal favorite is Rohinton Mistry (Canada), whose A Fine
Balance (1995) is widely considered among the finest novels published
during the past ten years. A tough act to follow, to be sure. So for his
next novel, Mistry didn't try to recreate his earlier success. In fact,
he wrote its opposite. Where the former was a vast panorama encompassing
an entire subcontinent, Family Matters uses an intimate canvas
to portray a single family. Where A Fine Balance earned Mistry
comparison to Dickens, Family Matters, with its preoccupation with
domestic matters, is more Austenian. But while it may play on a smaller
stage, Family Matters is no less compelling than its predecessor,
and that's saying something indeed. Martin, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Rohinton Mistrys enthralling novel is at once a domestic drama and an intently observed portrait of present-day Bombay in all its vitality and corruption. At the age of seventy-nine, Nariman Vakeel, already suffering from Parkinsons disease, breaks an ankle and finds himself wholly dependent on his family. His step-children, Coomy and Jal, have a spacious apartment (in the inaptly named Chateau Felicity), but are too squeamish and resentful to tend to his physical needs.
Nariman must now turn to his younger daughter, Roxana, her husband, Yezad, and their two sons, who share a small, crowded home. Their decision will test not only their material resources but, in surprising ways, all their tolerance, compassion, integrity, and faith. Sweeping and intimate, tragic and mirthful, Family Matters is a work of enormous emotional power.
"Rohinton Mistry writes sweeping, realist family dramas that recall such 19th century writers as Tolstoy and Dickens....Mistry's newest novel, Family Matters, isn't as resonant or as powerful as A Fine Balance few books are but it's moving all the same, occasionally achieving an incandescent tenderness that never lapses into bathos....Mistry has an amazing way of setting up ordinary lives scarred by tragedy, then illuminating them with moments of merciful beauty. He writes simply, but by accumulating the small details of his characters' existence, he creates a visceral feel for their loves, humiliations and little victories....[I]f Family Matters isn't as tightly plotted as A Fine Balance, it shares with it a luminous compassion, an abundance of life and piercing moments that remain etched in its reader's memory." Michelle Goldberg, Salon.com
"Mistry...solidifies his standing as one of the world's finest authors....Come to [this book] with the anticipation or foreboding you'd bring to a letter from home. You'll be rewarded luxuriously." The Seattle Times
"Mistry's prose is expansive, generous to its characters and ample in story....Frequently clear-eyed, courageous and deeply entertaining." The Oregonian
"Imagine a 19th-century realist sensibility probing the abiding mysteries of India in our time. Leo Tolstoy meets R. K. Narayan....Mistrys compassion for [his] people is boundless." Newsday
"Almost Tolstoyan in registry and range....To say Mistry captures the textures of India well and creates larger-than-life characters is to note the least of his achievements." The Observer (London)
"Stealthily, even movingly, Mistry reveals small triumphs of humanity over distaste, minute shifts that signal leaps of compassion." The Guardian (UK)
"Mistry has created a meticulously evoked, deliberately paced portrait of decay and ruin....It is not a pretty picture, but Mistry makes it warmhearted and stirring all the same." Time Out New York
"Rohinton Mistry is not a household name, but it should be....[He] has long been recognized as one of the best Indian writers; he ought to be considered simply one of the best writers, Indian or otherwise, now alive....Mistry has a keenly developed feeling for the absurd: there is hardly a page in all of his fiction that isn't funny on one level or another....One of the strongest features of Mistry's novels and the reason he is so reminiscent of the great nineteenth-century writers is his use, sometimes audacious, of big metaphors. Family Matters
and A Fine Balance
are masterly in the way they imbue certain lives, or deaths, with meaning....Major writers differ from minor ones, even great minor ones, in their ability to handle the big questions: death, family, the passing of time, the inevitability of loss, God or the corresponding God-shape hole. Mistry handles all of them in an accomplished style all his own." Brooke Allen, The Atlantic Monthly
(read the entire Atlantic review
Set in Bombay in the mid-1990s, "Family Matters" tells a story of familial love and obligation, of personal and political corruption, of the demands of tradition and the possibilities for compassion.
About the Author
Rohinton Mistry was born in Bombay and now lives near Toronto. His first novel, Such a Long Journey, received, among other awards, the 1992 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book of the Year. In 1995, A Fine Balance won the second annual Giller Prize and, in 1996, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. Mistry is also the author of Swimming Lessons, a collection of short stories.
Reading Group Guide
Booker Prize Finalist
"Mistry is a giant of a writer.... An almost perfect example of the storyteller's art." —Chicago Tribune
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups reading of Rohinston Mistrys eagerly anticipated and hugely ambitious third novel, Family Matters.
1. The familys story springs from Narimans marriage to the widowed mother of Coomy and Jal. Were told, “And he, when he looked back on it all, across the wasteland of their lives, despaired at how he could have been so feeble-minded, so spineless, to have allowed it to happen” (p. 10). He also blames his parents and their friends, “the wilful manufacturers of misery” (p.76). Why did Nariman give in, after his eleven-year love affair with Lucy, to his parents demand that he marry a Parsi woman? He was forty-two years old at the time. Was his decision an act of weakness?
2. When the medical assistant setting plaster on his broken ankle says to Nariman, “we need a Mahatma these days,” Nariman retorts, “All we get instead are micro-mini atmas” (p. 47). What is the novels perspective on the state of Indias politics, compared with the idealism of Mahatma Gandhi? Is Nariman a cynic, a wit, or simply a realist at this stage of his experience?
3. Narimans memories of the past, including his love affair with Lucy, are presented in italics at intervals throughout the novel. What is the effect of Mistrys revealing the familys tragic history in this intermittent way? How central is the theme of memory to Family Matters?
4. Yezads friend Vilas writes letters for illiterate workers in Bombay. How does his presence in the novel illuminate the lives of those less privileged, and even more unfortunate, than the Chenoy and Vakeel families?
5. Most of the novels events take place in two apartments. What perspective do the names of these buildings—Chateau Felicity and Pleasant Villas—cast on the lives lived within them? How are these dwellings described? Coomy asserts that Roxanas flat, though only two rooms is “huge” by Bombay standards: “You know that in chawls and colonies, families of eight, nine, ten live in one room” (see p. 75). Why is it important to our comprehension of Bombay life that we understand just how little space people are living in?
6. In answer to their question about why Yezad moved out of his beloved family home, Roxana tells her sons, “Daddys three sisters didnt like me” (p. 40). Why does Mistry suggest, as in his Tolstoyan epigraph, that “all unhappy families resemble one another”? To what degree does family unhappiness result from constant togetherness?
7. Does Coomy force the care of Nariman onto Roxana as an act of revenge? Is it understandable that, given her loyalty to her mothers memory, Coomy would resent having to tend her ailing stepfather? Why are the circumstances of Coomys death particularly ironic?
8. In Family Matters, several characters take steps to alleviate their difficulties. Yezad tries to bring in more money through gambling, and he also makes efforts to change Mr. Kapurs mind about running for office so that he himself will be promoted. Jehangir, as homework monitor, accepts bribes. Coomy and Jal try to delay their stepfathers return by destroying the ceiling of their apartment. Why do these characters strenuous efforts to arrange the events of their lives come to grief? Does Mistry suggest that fate—rather than desire or will—rules human lives?
9. Why is Roxana so moved by the sight of Jehangir feeding his grandfather, a moment she perceives as “something almost sacred” (p. 98)? Of all the characters in the story, Roxana is the one who understands most fully the weighty responsibilities that come with loving ones family. How does this understanding impinge upon her happiness? Is she too self-sacrificing?
10. How seriously are we to take the ideas of Mr. Kapur, Yezads employer? Are we to assume that he would not have made a successful politician? Is Mistry using him to represent the best of Indias secular and pluralist ideals? What is the meaning of his murder? What sort of person is his widow?
11. Mr. Kapur tells Yezad, “Everyone underestimates their own life. Funny thing is, in the end, all our stories—your life, my life, old Husains life, theyre the same. In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story: of youth, and loss, and yearning for redemption. So we tell the same story, over and over. Just the details are different” (p. 197). How does Kapurs insight address the need for empathy, a theme that is underscored at various times throughout the novel?
12. What place does the Hindu extremist party Shiv Sena have in the novels political background? Should Yezad feel partly responsible for the death of Mr. Kapur? How does Mistry use the murder and its aftermath to reflect the complexity and danger of life in contemporary Bombay?
13. Yezads return to religion is presented in terms of timelessness, peace and comfort; he perceives his Zoroastrianism as “encoded in blood and bone” (p. 297) Yet the novel makes readers all too aware of the destructive aspects of religious belief as well. How does Yezads spiritual life change as the novel proceeds? What effect does his embrace of orthodoxy have on his family? How does the description of Yezad five years later (p. 403), point to what has become most important for him?
14. The Parsis, followers of an ancient Persian religion, were in colonial days an influential and highly respected minority in India. Family Matters addresses the dwindling of their cultural dominance despite the efforts of people like Narimans father who refuse to let their children intermarry. How does Mistry express his ambivalence about the Parsis? What are the positive and negative aspects of their tradition and their exclusivity?
15. Mistrys descriptions of Narimans faltering mind and body are sobering, not least for the impact his failing health has on those around him. Coomy and Jal “were bewildered, and indignant, that a human creature of blood and bone, so efficient in good health, could suddenly become so messy.… Sometimes they took it personally, as though their stepfather had reduced himself to this state to harass them” (p. 68). Roxana, on the other hand, quotes Gandhis injunction “that there was nothing nobler than the service of the weak, the old, the unfortunate” (p. 248). How do such realizations about loving service, as well as the awareness of mortality, affect the ethical thinking of Mistrys characters?
16. The novels epilogue is presented by Jehangir, now fourteen. Why has Mistry chosen to make Jehangir a central consciousness in the novel? What are we to make of Jehangirs final words?
17. Mistrys realism and his broad social canvas reflect the influence nineteenth-century fiction. How is his approach like or unlike other novels you may have read that address the conditions of a society through one family?