Ken Loach in Bollywood

Family Matters

Rohinton Mistry <em>Faber and Faber, 352pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0571194273

What a pity that Rohinton Mistry has already written a novel called A Fine Balance. The struggling Bombay family in his new novel would have appreciated that title. Balance is not just a metaphor for Nariman, the widowed 79-year-old Parsi patriarch. Although he has Parkinson's disease and osteoporosis, he still insists on taking his daily stroll. Coomy and Jal, the unmarried stepchildren with whom he shares his flat in (tragically misnamed) Chateau Felicity, are forever fretting about the trouble he will cause if he hurts himself. But when he falls, breaks his ankle and ends up in bed, even they are shocked at how difficult it is to look after him.

Bedpans. Bedsores. Smells and messes. It's more than Coomy can take. So she decides to offload the patient on to her half-sister, Roxana. If she uses less than honourable methods, she has her reasons. Her most serious grievance remains hidden for most of the novel. But we know from the start that she has never quite forgiven her stepfather for using all his savings to buy a flat for Roxana so that she could escape to a happier place when she got married.

Roxana is devoted to her father. Although surprised by his sudden arrival at Pleasant Villa, she wants to nurse him back to health. But how to add an invalid to the two-room flat? She ends up making the balcony into a makeshift bedroom for her two young sons and putting her father on the settee in the front room. Here the bedpans, smells and messes become public performances. Nariman has nightmares. He reveals family secrets in his sleep. Yezad, Roxana's husband, struggles to make the old man welcome. But he is a disappointed man whose job at a sports equipment store only just enables him to meet his family's basic needs. Now, with his father-in-law's expensive medicines, he can't even do that. Shamed by his failure to provide for his sons, and deprived of his peace, his privacy and his wife's full attention, he lets his standards unravel.

The risks he takes in the hope of supplementing his income do not pay off. Instead, they push his kindly employer and his family ever closer to the brink. Back at Chateau Felicity, Coomy is busy organising the destruction of her ceiling to give substance to her claim that her father-in-law cannot return. This plan also backfires; soon, both sides of the family are facing ruin.

What a story, you must be thinking. Stripped down to the bare plot, it does sound like Ken Loach Goes to Bollywood. But Mistry's interest is not just in the limits and misfortunes of his characters. Rather, it's in their ingenious ways of rising above them. Time and time again, they reach the end, only to happen upon one more hat concealing one more rabbit. No matter how bad things get, they never stop "taking pleasure in the beautiful things, to defeat the sadness and sorrow of life". The results are sometimes tragic, often comic, and never dull.

The faithful recording of domestic routines and conversations suggests a paradise lost. The nature of the loss becomes clear only in the epilogue, when the narrative shifts somewhat awkwardly from third to first person, to give the last word to Roxana's younger son. By now, the family feud is history. It is not a proper subject for discussion, even though no one can walk two feet without coming face to face with its consequences. Life for the surviving members of the family is more comfortable now, but also more divisive. Is this because he's not a child any more, Jehangir wonders. Or is it because the crisis gave him his first glimpse of his family's troubled history?

In spite of Mistry's ornate celebration of the everyday, history remains his main preoccupation. Not only do we see Nariman's tragedy replayed by his grandson, but in both stories we see the unfolding of a larger saga. Once celebrated as the people who built Bombay and made it prosper, the Parsi are dwindling in number, and there are fears that they will soon die out. The standard reasons, and so the most feared dangers, are intermarriage and emigration. Nariman's original sin is to fall in love with a non-Parsi. Although he ends up marrying obediently, his rejected lover, Lucy, refuses to fade away. Even after her death, she remains the ghost that runs the family, the unlearnt lesson that will make history repeat itself over and over until there is no one left to play it. At some points, Family Matters looks like a bow to the inevitable. At others, it looks more like a plea to honour and preserve what's left. In the end, its larger-than-life characters throw all theories out the window.

This is an old-fashioned novel in the best sense of the word. It is about people who are up against it, who sometimes act worse than you might have hoped, but more often surprise you. It's about families breaking up and in extremis coming together again, about betrayal, forgiveness and redemption. It offers up all the grand old humanist themes, but with an exuberance that makes them look new again. There is an occasional over-reliance on coincidence. The drive for perfect narrative symmetry is sometimes too obvious. But neither flaw detracts from the book's great heart.

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, If only I could teach them what I have learnt