Boon Review - Family Matters (Rohinton Mistry)

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The definition of a family is a culturally variable, ever-evolving concept. Depending on the purpose of our interest, families may be understood through their living situations, marital status, economic structure, through traditional bloodlines—or some combination of the above. Ideas about family range from institution to institution, from culture to culture, and even between people within a culture. As unique as our definitions of family are our personal interactions—and interpretations of these actions—within our own family lives. From a symbolic-interactionist's micro approach, our social interactions help define our personal ideology regarding family, and thus vary for everyone. Set against the politically-charged city of Bombay in the mid-1990's, Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters paints a unique portrait of one family's experience. As unique as this story is in its characters and cultural setting, the struggles of the Contractor and Chenoy families are in no way unfamiliar to anyone who's ever wrestled with the conflicts of love, loyalty and responsibility.

Revolving around the final months of Nariman Vakeel's life, Mistry's novel explores the complex relationships within his blended family of adult children. Predeceased by his wife, Nariman spends the better portion of his adult life rearing Jal and Coomy—his stepchildren. His role as a caretaker, however, is reversed with the onset of Parkinson's disease. Soon, Jal and Coomy find themselves solely responsible for their stepfather's well-being, and overwhelmed with the task, coldly drop him off at their half-sister Roxana's cramped apartment. Roxana and her husband, Yezad, have two sons—aged nine and thirteen—and the story focuses on the tribulations of a single-earner family with multiple dependents. Amid the constant struggle for enough money to make ends meet is the increasing struggle to maintain a sense of order, respect and dignity between each of the family members.

Having a significant effect on the family members in the story is the political state of their large and multi-cultural city. Bombay (or Mumbai, is it is newly named by Hindu Shiv Sena politicians around the time of the novel) is a conglomerate of cultures and religions, all attempting to exist in a bustling metropolis. With over fifteen million inhabitants (Gupta, 2005) , Bombay is the largest city in India. In Mistry's novel, poverty and corruption play a constant backdrop to his tale. Often the family is torn between being thankful for their relatively high standard of living, while resentful of corrupt politicians and police who ignore their plight or, often, worsen it through harsh policies, intimidation tactics and high taxes. Fears of racism and intense religious segregation are also pressures within Bombay, with the anti-Muslim Babri Mosque riots too recent to forget. All characters within the novel are pressured by their leaders as well as their families to examine their cultural heritage, in a time where fears of complete assimilation in a large city run rampant.

The sex ratio in India (specifically Bombay) is in favor of females. Partially due to the large influx of rural males seeking employment (Wikipedia, 2005), there are only 811 adult females to every 1,000 adult males. According to a lecture at the University of Calgary on September 30th, 2005, Dr. S. Lackner quoted Guttentag & Secord (1983) as stating that a shortaae of women leads to traditional sex roles and lowered marriage rates (S. Lackner, SOCI 371 lecture, September 30th, 2005). Both of these are readily visible in the novel, with no female characters having employment outside the house, and several adults of both genders remaining unmarried. The two adult females in the novel—sisters Coomy and Roxana—both experience money troubles in their respective situations, but traditional roles for Indian women dictate that they must not work outside the home.

While the issues respecting location...
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