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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 may be specific to Bombay residents, many other conflicts within the book are familiar on a larger scale. Often regarded as responsible for the family's current plight, Nariman Vakeel is an educated former professor from a dwindling, yet proud cultural group. The Parsis are a minority in India, and as often occurs in immigrant families, preserving their culture is regarded as a necessity. When a young Nariman begins courting a Goan woman named Lucy, his family is outraged with the heterogeneous paring. The two have found what many consider to be a "love match" (McDaniel & Tepperman, 2004), but disproval from both sets of parents plagues their courtship. As in many societies, the idea of exogamous courtship is strongly discouraged--a previous marriage performed between a Parsi and non-Parsi ignited "a period of debate and polemics and bickering" in the community (Mistry, 2002). Nariman and Lucy frequently fought both with their families and with each other over their inter-cultural relationship. Despite this, Nariman and Lucy continued their relationship for 11 years before Mistry (2002) described the pair as being "ground down by their families" and "exhausted by the strain of it". Eventually, the relationship dissolved under the stress.

Following the ending of Nariman's relationship, he conceded to his family's wishes. As is common in individuals with higher levels of education, Nariman was not married till much later in life. Despite delaying marriage well into his forties, he eventually agreed to settle down with a bride of his family's choosing in an arranged marriage. Arranged marriages differ in the levels of participation of the inidividual who is set to marry, but generally rely on family members and friends to find a suitable match. The selection of a bride in this novel was based on what she had to offer. Nariman's family members went about negotiations with families in an attempt to find the most suitable mate they could for a man seen as "damaged goods" because of his previous relationship with Lucy. According to McDaniel & Tepperman (2004), arranged marriages are common in societies with close, extended families--so it was Nariman's extended family that played matchmaker for the bridegroom-to-be. Together, they considered everything, including "personality, family background, cooking and housekeeping skills" (Mistry, 2002). With this shopping list in mind, a widower by the name of Jasmin Contractor was selected as Nariman's wife.

As she passed away many years ago, Nariman Vakeel's wife had a small, but influential role in the story. As a woman in a society where men are still the traditional providers, Jasmin Contractor was sucked into the



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