Family matters might be sometimes lengthy, but is never boring. In this novel, one is bound to say that there are absolutely no concessions to any of the conventional ingredients of fiction. No sex, no facile suspense, no satisfying coincidences. There is nothing but the unfolding of family life and emotions, the description of moral choices and their consequences. Nothing but the logical interplay of interests and affections. Where there is love, it’s like oil, the social machinery runs smoothly. Where hate reigns, it grinds to a halt, and snaps under the subsequent pressure buildup. Is this over-optimistic? Is there a missing dose of negativity? No, this is how it works in real life, as a rule, even if in some cases love fails and vested interests are too strong to budge.
At regular intervals, we follow Nariman’s previous life (it is told as in a dream, and is the only love-story of the book): we discover that “forty years before, as an eligible, secularly inclined young intellectual in newly independent India, he had wanted to marry Lucy, a Goan Christian. Reluctantly, and with tragic consequences, Nariman succumbed to family pressure and took instead a Parsi widow (with two children) to wife.” (John Sutherland, in the NY Times). What are these consequences, and what do they mean? Well, Lucy never stopped loving him, and became half crazy with his decision to conform to family wishes (which “mattered” more than Nariman’s feelings). She hounded him, took up premises close to where he had started living with his new wife Yasmin and their children (Chateau Felicity, a hypocritical name where Nariman still lives at the beginning of the novel), and inveigled herself in his life in spite of all reasoning. Nariman, who has never stopped loving her, is forced to see her, talk to her, much to the displeasure of his Parsi wife. One day, Lucy climbs on the roof of their block of flats, and trying to bring her back by sheer force (whereas in previous cases, Nariman had used soft words), Yasmin falls off the ridge with her.
The two stepchildren are marvels of characterization. Coomy, especially, the righteous and cantankerous spinster who pretends she’s altruistic and concerned, but who has let hate eat her up, and tragically has a hole instead of a heart. The scene where, at Nariman’s birthday, she is forced by her stepfather to bring out the bone china instead of the everyday plates and dishes is a piece of anthology. She secretly blames Nariman for having killed her mother, with his unruly love of that Goan woman. Let’s say she’s her deceased mother’s avenger. And so even if she cannot say it, her whole life is full of hatred and self-righteousness (as a compensation), and she’s on the lookout for the first opportunity to get rid of the detested free-thinker, who represents a crossover form of civilised culture very much at risk in today’s India. Coomy on the other hand represents intransigence and sectarianism. And the soft-willed brother Jal represents opportunistic powerlessness, because even though he’s friendly, he cannot resist his sister’s fury and rage, and objectively sides with her.
The broken ankle is the needed opportunity. At first, Nariman is taken care of at Chateau Felicity, but being bedridden, he’s now an invalid, and Coomy’s hatred spawns a Machiavellian scheme: she pretends they don’t have the money any more to look after him, that the doctor told her this and that, and one day she arrives at Yezad’s flat with Nariman in an ambulance. He is to stay only a few days. But after the period is over, she deliberately damages Nariman’s ceiling (in fact she obliges Jal to do it) and informs Roxana and Yezad that the “accident” in his ceiling makes his room impossible to have him back. This wilful hammering has a symbolical meaning: it stands for a generation’s disregard for the higher values of mercy, forbearance and integration. The deliberate destruction of Gandhian values, in fact, which India’s...
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