Monday, 6 October 2008

Dickens looms large over Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters. The melodramatic plot twists, the plethora of impossibly picturesque secondary characters, the constant teetering on the brink of sentimentality. Mistry is great at tugging at the heartstrings, and there are times when he goes a bit too far to make that violin weep. The tragedies and deaths are piled on as he tells us the story of a Parsi family in 1990s Bombay, grappling with the decline of their patriarch, Nariman Vakeel and their own individual choices, mistakes and conflicts. Some of the characters are quickly cast aside to be caught up with later as Mistry's narrative meanders from one focal point to another, sometimes seeming to lose touch with the rest of the story. Some of the actions his characters take seem dictated by the need to set up dramatic plot points rather than as a result of consistent character development.

And yet, despite all this, Mistry gets through to those heartstrings. I found myself caring about the people in this book, identifying with them and rooting for their family to reconcile and overcome its difficulties. In some ways they do - and in others, the final outcome is left hanging. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and Mistry leaves with a family in an uneasy state of harmony, held together by love and loyalry but with the cracks of dissent and prejudice still showing. In the process, Mistry in a somewhat slapdash manner also manages to paint a picture of Bombay, of its teeming masses and the many currents and counter-currents of hostility surging, sometimes more overtly than not, through them all.

I think what works in this novel's favour is that Mistry's compassion is real, and he writes about what he knows. In some ways this book is the anti-Naipaul. Mistry writes with a similarly crowded, often caricatured 19th-century model of the novel in mind, but where with Naipaul sheet talent compensates for a certain cynicism, it's Mistry's humanity that made me forgive his sometimes shaky novelcraft. Much the same way as the occasional, disarming, flash of humanity makes you forgive the teeming urban hells of India for their many failings.

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