Pico Iyer Journeys

Rohinton Mistry

Typical of everything that is most sinewy and true in the book is the way in which one character, buffeted by misfortune, starts to stop off at the Parsi fire temple on his way home from work, in search of some kind of calm and consolation in the middle of decaying Bombay. Before long, he has become so attached to the faith that he was never interested in before that is turning into something of a fanatic, as intolerant as the local thugs he reviles. Meanwhile, the cunning stepdaughter, Coomy–Nariman’s Goneril–is shown at one point with “tears of empathy” in her eyes and is later found to have secretly stashed away some money to help her nephews.

Mistry locates such moments with a surgeon’s precision, as if to suggest that no feelings or motives are ever unmixed. And suspicious always of explanations or theories, he refuses to allow his reader to settle into easy conclusions or pieties. As in Greene again, many of his scenes take the form of long discussions between friends as they try to puzzle out the injustices–and possibilities–of the world. Yezad’s boss, for example, is given to extolling Bombay as a miracle of tolerance, a “tropical Camelot” and a model of the Hinduism known for “welcoming all creeds and beliefs and dogmas and theologies.” Every time he delivers such sentiments, which might seem close to Mistry’s own, his friend Yezad puts him in his place. And when the same idealist decides it is his duty to rescue the city he loves by running in a municipal election, Yezad begins to long for him to risk his life in that way (as do we), not so that Bombay can be revived, but mostly so that he may get promoted, and so better protect his family . Even when a good man dies, Mistry recognizes, a part of us starts thinking about how his death will make our lives easier (or more difficult)–and then another part tries to admonish that.

This being India, the characters are never slow to meditate on such themes, and all the ways in which they suffer if they give in to an often capricious-seeming providence {whimsical-seeming Fate), and suffer if they don’t. “There’s only one way to defeat the sorrows and sadnesses of life,” Nariman says at one point. “With laughter and rejoicing.” Another character, too typically, intones, “What is this absurd force called fate ?” Mistry roams around them all, taking it in with a grieving tolerance: when Mahatma Gandhi is invoked, as he often is here, it is generally in the context of a man who would throw up his hands in despair if confronted with the Bombay of today.

Relatively close to the beginning of Ian McEwan’s commanding new novel Atonement, there is a passage in which one of his characters, contemplating his future, imagines how a doctor might be the more effective if he were to study literature.

“Birth, death, and frailty in between. Rise and fall–this was the doctor’s business, and it was literature’s, too. He was thinking of the nineteenth-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment; his kind of doctor would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable; he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind.”

McEwan includes the reflection, with characteristic irony, just before a four-letter word slips, as if by mistake, into a letter, and explodes that very world of high-minded innocence; his sophisticated and modern concern is with how such noble ideas of purpose can be brought into a much less hopeful world, in the wake of two World Wars. Yet to an uncanny extent his description does begin to catch Mistry’s attitude, that of a doctor anxious to bring his characters to health and happiness, yet keenly aware that most matters are outside his control, that triumphs are likely to prove temporary and that compassion itself can be a liability in a world that is seldom tender or just. The “fine balance” that gave his great novel its title refers to the balance that many of us, like a doctor, must come to, between hopefulness and realism, between determination and faith.

Visitors to India, even in the 21st century, are often surprised by how heavily the recent British past still weighs upon the present, P.G. Wodehouse still dominating many a bookshop, and children still asked (as in Family Matters) to memorize Tennyson for class. What this means in fiction, though, is that Indian writers from the middle classes, writing in English, are notably connected to a 19th century tradition that has never been displaced in India (as it has in almost every other English-speaking country). Marriages are sill arranged, often, and subject to as many family pressures as in Jane Austen; the streets still pulse with the energy and poverty of Dickens’s London; and–most important of all, perhaps–people still carry themselves as if religion had not been unsettled by science, and no Nietzsche had arrived to tell them about the death of God. In writers such as Vikram Seth and Anita Desai–and, pre-eminently, Mistry–the mere transcription of the world around them in India falls into a 19th century form as it would never do for, say, Martin Amis in London, or Don DeLillo in New York.

In some ways, this closeness to the great tradition, and to a sincere and unembarrassed interest in character and story, may be as much a source of the power of contemporary Indian fiction as are the more obvious lures of magic realism; it certainly begins to explain why Bombay is becoming as central a location in English Literature as London was in Victoria’s time. It also means, inevitably, that readers of a more modern cast of mind may grow impatient with a book like Family Matters, which takes a hundred leisurely pages to settle into its family setting. Scenes in which a small boy tries to protect his grandfather from bad dreams, or in which a violinist plays Bach partitas to a dying man, may strike cool and guarded readers as too sentimental; some readers in Canada have already suggested that Mistry sees Bombay only as an out-of-date exile might (his 21st century teenagers in this book show no interest in MTV or computers).

There is a sense, too, in this book that Mistry is, as always, trying to push himself further, and sometimes strays from the ground he covers so beautifully to areas for which his worried kindness is less well-suited. In the passages in which characters discuss Bombay as a mecca of multicultural tolerance that could serve as a beacon for a pluralist world, they come very close to sounding like Salman Rushdie’s people, though without the furious energy and combative vigor of Rushdie, whose very sentences and paragraphs are a loud argument for multiculturalism (it’s easy to overlook, amidst all his commotion, that Rushdie is always at his best, and most heartfelt, in evoking a Bombay that he, too, has not much seen since his boyhood). In all Mistry’s books, the reaching for a larger political point is never quite as convincing as the simple domestic scenes of which he is a master, getting us to care–and even pray–for his characters, as many reviewers have remarked, as almost no other contemporary writer can do.

For much the same reason, perhaps, the endings of his books have never been their strong points, and, unlike Greene, he is never able to braid the larger reflections on society and the individual dramas as tightly as he should. In Family Matters, one section at the end is narrated in the first person and, for me, as soon as Mistry relinquishes his third-person stance, with its air of hovering compassion and omni-tolerant attention, something falls away. Instead of seeing every person from within, we are locked in just one perspective, and something of the watchful tone that so distinguishes his voice is gone. In his first book of stories, the weakest was the one in which he wrote in the first person, and, more, in the voice of a lonely exile in a Toronto apartment building, sending letters back to the swarming Bombay he so misses. The language in that story was–deliberately, of course–flat and displaced, and there was just a trace of self-consciousness in the way the parents back home tried to unriddle their writer son, much as a reader {or reviewer ?} might (“All his stories are set in Bombay, he remembers every little tiny detail, he is thinking about it all the time even though he is ten thousand miles away”).

Mistry’s great gift, in all his stories, is to eliminate every trace of self-consciousness, and disappear so seamlessly into his people that nothing seems to come between us and their anguished hopes. His freedom from post-modernist games, and from myth-making, is, in fact, part of what distinguishes him from so many other writers coming into English from exotic backgrounds . Family Matters does not aspire to the epic grandeur of A Fine Balance, and yet it moves and engages and warms at every moment. If you take “Matters” to be a noun, the title could not be more everyday or drab. If you take it to be a verb, though, that some title sounds like a statement of purpose–and belief. Taking what is mundane and familiar and turning it into something that matters is, one could say, the singular accomplishment of this enduring writer.

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