be8cbc2d430d2428f885731cbec40600-1FAMILY MATTERS
by Rohinton Mistry. Knopf. 448 p. Hardcover. Sept. 2002.

Rohinton Mistry’s Dickensian sprawling plots remind me of an old black-and-white Hindi movie. The worst things happen to the noblest of people, who then weather the storms with equanimity and triumph in the end.

Mistry’s latest novel,  FAMILY MATTERS, is a flawless gem and is a worthy successor to his impressive A Fine Balance. At the heart of  FAMILY MATTERS is the aging widower Nariman Vakeel who is in rapidly deteriorating health due to Parkinson’s disease. Vakeel is haunted by dreams of an ex-girlfriend who he was forced to renounce. He entered into an unhappy arranged marriage with a Parsi widow with two children. When Nariman slips and hurts himself seriously, his stepchildren transfer custody of their bedridden father to their half-sister, Roxana. Roxana has a happy family with a doting husband and two wonderful sons. Vakeel’s arrival in an already cramped apartment puts enormous financial and emotional burdens on the family. As Vakeel puts it, “People have their own lives, it’s not helpful when something disturbs those lives.” Family Matters portrays the daily play of emotions with remarkable acuity.

Mistry paints all his characters vividly and realistically with strengths and failings. Roxana cares for her aging father with amazing grace. Her husband, who once dreamt of immigrating to Canada, tries valiantly to remain upbeat. There are other interesting characters in the story—Daisy who lives downstairs in Pleasant Villa and entertains Vakeel with her violin; Vikram Kapur, a manager at Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium.

Mistry’s love for his old hometown Mumbai, formerly Bombay, shines very clearly in the words of Kapur: “Bombay endures because it gives and it receives. Within this warp and weft is woven the special texture of its social fabric, the spirit of tolerance, acceptance, generosity. Anywhere else in the world, in those so-called civilized places like England and America, such terrible conditions would lead to revolution.”

These words of praise for Mumbai, however, come with a warning against the radical political party, Shiv Sena, trying to gain control of this dynamic city. As with A Fine Balance, Mistry uses his platform to make political statements—a frequent rant against the Shiv Sena and a subtle one against the pro-lifers in America, the “empty talkers” who prevent research into Parkinson’s.

Mistry warns against fatalism: “In a culture where destiny is embraced as the paramount force, we are all puppets.” Despite that, his primary characters often accept fate as the only graceful alternative. Family Matters ends without strong closure and that is just as well. For we have learnt along the way that even in a culture riddled with fatalists, the common man holds his head up high and emerges from battle relatively unscathed.

At one point in the narrative, Roxana’s husband and his boss peer into a mirror and Kapur asks, “See that? The faces of ordinary family men, not heroes.” I beg to differ.—Poornima Apte

This review first appeared in www.desijournal.com

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BITTER GOURD AND OTHER STORIES by Talat Abbasi. Oxford University Press. 170p. Hardcover. 2002. be8cbc2d430d2428f885731cbec40600-2

Talat Abbasi’s  BITTER GOURD AND OTHER STORIES is an excellent collection of short stories. Nearly all of the 17 stories have been previously published and in some cases, reprinted mostly in U.S. literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks for U.S. college students. A couple of them have been broadcast on the BBC, including a prize-winning one in the BBC World Service Short Story Competition, 2000. One can understand this wide appeal of Abbasi’s writing for reader’s abroad as well as in her native country of Pakistan because the messages are so universal that for the reader there is an almost instant empathy and engagement with Abbasi’s characters. We may all recognize the single women struggling on their own, spouses cheating on each other, complacent, snobbish rich relations and delightfully curious, inquiring children trying to make sense of it all as they attempt to live up to the roles the adult world expects of them as girls and boys, rich and poor, children of masters and servants.

Abbasi’s style is refreshingly simple and direct, pared down to the minimum words needed to convey her meaning. Thus, “Going to Baltistan” is a monologue delivered by an upper class politician’s wife to an unseen unheard female journalist who is interviewing her. In her self-centeredness, the society woman betrays not only her own vanity and condescension, but opens up for the reader an entire world of contrasts between the haves and have-nots, the self-serving leaders and the disempowered masses. And all this Abbasi manages to do in four short, hard-hitting pages.

Contrasts are evident throughout the stories. For example, contrasting gender roles of men and women are a recurrent theme of Pakistani life, both in the stories set in that country and among immigrants in the U.S. “A Bear and its Trainer,” is a masterful account of a crisis and its surprising, indeed shocking, outcome in the lives of an immigrant couple. Abbasi, because of her detachment, is able to take on the viewpoints of all sorts of characters, including both men and women as she does in this story set in Queens, New York. She never stereotypes men or women, rich or poor—each character has his or her individuality. The result often is a surprise. As in real life, so in these stories, people continually surprise us, just as we imagine we have understood them as in the case of the woman in “A Bear and its Trainer.”

Abbasi’s playful, sometimes mocking style, is perhaps most evident in stories centering round children as in “Granny’s Portion,” where children from a rich clan are sent off, accompanied by driver and ayah, to a poor relation in a distant part of the city, with the yearly gift of left-over sacrificial meat. But again characteristically—and realistically—Abbasi’s child characters are not immune to the perils of the adult world as in “A Piece of Cake” where a maid’s daughter pays the price for greed.

BITTER GOURD AND OTHER STORIES” is a valuable addition to the growing literature from South Asia and a must read for those who value high quality short fiction.

— Elizabeth Walter

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