Tales of the City 

Dateline: Bombay, one family, the mid-'90s.

Family Matters

By Rohinton Mistry

Knopf, 434 pp., $26

The Indian writer Rohinton Mistry lives near Toronto, but his great subject remains his hometown Bombay -- if by "hometown" we can mean a city of 18 million (only half of whom have electricity and running water) and if by "Bombay" we mean Mumbai, as the city was renamed by Hindu extremists in 1996.

Bombay, then, as pictured inside Mistry's great new novel, Family Matters: a "shining city by the sea ... a golden place where races and religions lived in peace and amity" but, as it stands, a city "slowly dying ... in an unholy nexus of politicians, criminals, and police." "Chaos personified": Bombay.

This, then, from one of Mistry's characters, Vikram Kapur, a Hindu seller of sporting goods whose family fled south from Punjab after the Partition in 1947, speaking to his trusty Parsi store-manager Yezad Chenoy:

"This beautiful city of seven islands ... this enigma of cosmopolitanism ... this Urbs Prima in Indis, this dear, dear city now languishes ... like a patient in intensive care ... put there by small, selfish men who would destroy it because their coarseness cannot bear something so grand, so fine." We have the right, do we not, Kapur wants to know, to be disgusted with this city once known and loved? And by these "small, selfish men" he means members of the anti-Muslim, ultraconservative Hindu party Shiv Sena, members of a police force who incite as much as crush the violence in the streets, members of a business class whose hidden business is to operate openly under the table, and a numbers racket, which seems to preoccupy most of Bombay.

Chenoy the employee knows better than to fake any love lost: "I am a born-and-bred Bombayvala," he matter-of-factly informs Kapur. "That automatically inoculates me against attacks of outrage."

But not against the difficult situation he finds inside his cramped, two-room apartment. Chenoy's wife, Roxana, is a true believer, a practicing Parsi, that ancient line of Zoroastrians out of Persia welcomed to Bombay centuries ago and representative of the city's educated middle class. She, through patience and sheer willpower, is making ends meet, keeping Yezad's uneven temper in partial check, getting their sons Murad, 13, and Jehangir, 9, off to school at St. Xavier's, and, in a surprise move by her middle-aged half-brother and -sister, Jal and Coomy, caring for her father, Nariman, a 79-year-old retired professor of English, a Parkinson's sufferer, and (news to Roxana) recent recipient of a broken ankle. Jal and Coomy had been the ones looking after him for years in the seven-room flat they've occupied since Nariman married their mother, but this ankle business is the last straw.

Putting up with the old man (and not even a blood relative!) had always been a trial for the high-strung, eternally put-upon Coomy. But a bed-ridden patient needing everything from shaves, to spoon-feedings, to help at the commode, to simple tenderness -- forget it. Coomy (Jal's not so sure that they're up to any good) hands a stretched-out Nariman, unannounced, over to already-stretched-thin Roxana. Murad and Jehangir are glad to have grandpa on hand. Yezad bears up (sort of, sometimes) because he could always humor the guy. But the family's finances and Roxana reach near-breaking-point. Meanwhile, Nariman slips deeper into memories of his own troubled (arranged) marriage to his dead wife Yasmin and memories of his lost love, a Catholic come mentally unhinged, the woman his family refused him.

There's more to this lengthy, winding, very satisfying novel, though, which, "word" has it, falls squarely within the tradition set for it by 19th-century masters such as Tolstoy, and that "more" includes: Villie Cardmaster, flirt and "Matka Queen," runner in that numbers racket and the near-downfall of Yezad Chenoy; Daisy Ichhaporia, violin soloist with the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, who serenades Nariman in his last hours; Edul Munshi, inept carpenter and valuable tool of Coomy's in a trick to keep Nariman in his place and out of Coomy's apartment and hair; Husain the faithful Muslim "peon" inside Kapur's sporting-goods store; background references to the violence visited on Indian Muslims generally and to the terror that occurred at Babri Mosque specifically; discussions among Parsi professionals on religious custom and family "purity"; and Mistry's undisguised hatred of Shiv Sena.

Three characters, however, guide your attention: Yezad, who honors his Parsi roots (to the extreme) later in life; old Nariman, who recovers his past even as he's mentally lost to his caregivers; and young Jehangir, who sees his future in literature, better than to see his life as some jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces nowhere to be found.

Family Matters is Rohinton Mistry in top form. His human comedy you'll recognize; his hometown's your own.

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