Rohinton Mistry is one of the loose group of authors who write “Indian English Literature” – that is, they are of Indian descent, but are writing – typically about post-colonial India – in English. Mistry himself was born in India in 1952 but has lived in Canada since 1975.
One of the appeals to an Anglo-Saxon such as myself (who has not visited the Indian sub-continent) of this type of literature is the faint hint of exotica about it. Here are stories from the East, written by insiders, in impeccable English. But behind the exotic, we find the universal: such tales are, first and foremost, about human nature, and how people react to situations that may be – to one extent or another – out of the ordinary.
Nariman Vakeel is a distinguished 79-year-old with an academic career in English Literature (and a complicated romantic history) behind him. Despite his medical problems – he has Parkinson’s Disease and osteoporosis – he insists (quite rightly) on a measure of independence, and takes a daily walk. Unfortunately, it is on one of thees walks that he falls and breaks an ankle, which results in complications and an extended period of bed rest.His stepdaughter and stepson, with whom he lives in the family home, find it difficult to cope his care, and, through some rather devious machinations, manage to offload him on to their half-sister, Roxana – Nariman’s own daughter – who lives in a smaller flat with her young family. Roxana is happy to care for her father, but his presence causes all sorts of problems, not least financial ones.
Nariman may be the central figure, but the focus of the story moves away from him as an individual as the story progresses and other characters come to the fore, notably Roxana’s husband, Yezad, whose financial and spiritual troubles seem inextricably linked. However much the older Nariman fades into the background, however, his past is a recurring thread and is slowly revealed – to the reader and to his youngest grandson, Jehangir – as the novel progresses . A romantic relationship forbidden on religious grounds refuses to disappear, and has catastrophic results on his family, with repercussions that extend into the present day of the story.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The multiple characters are nicely drawn and the tale rolls along nicely, keeping the reader firmly involved. Mistry’s prose is unobtrusively elegant and is a pleasure to read. The twin themes of family relations and religion (a potentially complicated issue in multicultural India) are loosely entwined and combine to drive the story along.
The character of Nariman is dignified and, largely, well handled. I was slightly disappointed by the way that his strong presence diminished to, at times, little more than a problem to be solved (it might have been nice to have had an insight into how he – bed-ridden and losing his ability to communicate – felt), but the feelings of the other characters towards him as a person, even as he disappears into his illness, go some way towards making up for this.