Tuesday, September 1, 2009

246. Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry

August 2009
History: This book was published in 2002.
Plot: Nariman Vakeel is a seventy-nine-year-old Parsi widower and the patriarch of a small discordant family. Beset by Parkinson's disease and haunted by memories of the past, he lives in a once-elegant apartment with his two middle-aged stepchildren – Coomy, bitter and domineering, and her brother, Jal, mild-mannered and acquiescent. In his youth he loved a woman whom he could not marry because she was not a Parsi and his parents would never stand for it. So he marries a widow with two children and even though they have a child together and he tries to make his marriage work, it never does. The two women have a squirmish at the top of a building, and both fall to their deaths. All their lives are ruined and he remains haunted by what could have been, should have been and what-ifs for the rest of his life. But walks mean that Nariman, afflicted with Parkinson and osteoporosis, could hurt himself seriously if he has a fall – a thought that is anathema to Coomy, who yells at him daily as she watches him prepare himself. She does not help him nor does she offer to accompany him on his walks. Several times he has come home with abrasions on his elbow and foreman and a limp. One day he breaks his ankle and, with it encased in a cast, he must depend on Coomy and Jal for his most basic requirements; they must clean, shave and wash him and, since they can’t take him to the bathroom, they buy a commode which they keep next to his bed.The first few pages tell of Nariman's subjection to increasing decay in physical health and stinging insults (revolving around his cost of medicine, lack of space and privacy, the daily routine of bedpans and urinals, sponge baths and bedsores) from his stepdaughter.When Nariman's illness is compounded by a broken ankle, Coomy plots to turn his round-the-clock care over to Roxana, his sweet-tempered sister. She succeeds, but not without cost, and eventually Nariman takes up residence with Roxana, her husband, Yezad, and their two young sons. Very soon, the focus shifts to Roxana's household. The effect of the new responsibility on Yezad, who is already besieged by financial worries; first he gets involved in gambling, then the scheme of deception involves his eccentric, often exasperating employer at Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium. This plot eventually ends with the murder of his employer, ending his career. During this, Yezad becomes obsessed with the religion, God, and the rituals. In the end, he becomes the narrow minded Parsi he used to make fun of. As Yezad comes to centre stage for the following part of the book, the author explores the problems faced by an average middle class family. Financial problems also lure Jehangir towards greed and money. Jehangir cheats for classmates for money, and is caught, and is very ashamed.. In the epilogue, the youngest of all characters, Jehangir, becomes the narrator, describing the metamorphosis that religion, age, death, and wealth bring to his family.
Review: The first part of the novel deals mainly with the poor mans dependency on his family to help him with his functioning, toileting, and hygiene, and how much they are grossed out by it. I felt this was a realistic, and humanistic view of the tasks of taking care of the elderly, something Americans know little about. The book contains many details of the Parsis' practices, rituals, intolerances, and the concerns of native Parsis. I felt the character development was too contrasting, with the horrible Coomey, then the angelic Jehangir, there was no in between.
Opening Line: “A splash of light from the late afternoon sun lingered at the foot of Nariman’s bed, as he ended his nap and looked towards the clock.”
Closing Line: “Yes,” I say. “Yes, I’m happy.”
Quotes: “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”
Rating: Good.

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