The Denver Post
December 22, 2002
By Dylan Foley
Indian-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry's 1995 novel "A Fine Balance" covered India's mid-1970s martial law under Prime Minister Indira Ghandi and the effects of ethnic violence on its citizens. Interest in the book was revived last year when it became one of Oprah Winfrey's final choices for her book club. The book sold more than 700,000 copies and pushed Mistry to a new level of literary renown.
Mistry's new novel, "Family Matters," takes place in his native Bombay and explores the family bonds put under stress and tragic histories revealed when 79-year-old Nariman breaks his ankle and is forced to live with his daughter, Roxanne, his son-in-law, Yezad, and their children in a tiny apartment. The time is the mid-1990s and India is still reeling from the Hindu-Muslim violence after the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu radicals in 1992 and the murderous riots in Bombay in 1993.
The story is immersed in Bombay's Parsi community, a tiny religious minority. Mistry chronicles both the struggles of a family to remain in the middle class and the rise of religious intolerance in one household.
For Mistry, the new novel started with the image of a sad elderly man. "It was an old man with Parkinson's," he said in an interview from New York City. "Ten or 12 years ago, I wrote this short story called 'The Scream,' told in the first person by a man in his mid-80s. He's sort of delusionary and a little paranoid about how his family has been treating him. I wanted to work with a similar character on a larger scale."
By setting the novel after the 1993 riots, Mistry was able to explore the explosive religious tensions in India. "It is a decision that I made in the writing," said Mistry. "It is after the destruction of the Barbri Mosque and a year after the Hindu-Muslim riots that resulted after the destruction of the mosque. You play with these tensions and themes - Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist group, is in the book. They are more right wing, more vociferous, more violent than the ruling Hindu nationalist party."
One of the more compelling characters in the novel is Yezad, the son-in-law. He is a bright man who went to university but is in a dead-end job at a sporting goods store. "Initially, Yazed has a healthy view of life and is willing to tolerate religiousness in others," said Mistry. "He becomes weighed down by all the struggles and problems in his life."
Yezad is a Parsi. "He goes to the Fire Temple to find peace and quiet. This is what temples should provide - a moment of solitude and reflection." In simple, compelling strokes, Mistry shows how Yezad evolves from a secularist to a Parsi religious reactionary. He gets involved in a harmless scheme to trick his boss, Mr. Kapur, which backfires, and Mr. Kapur is killed.
"It is an unbearable guilt that tips the balance for him," said Mistry. "At this point, he can no longer negotiate the terrain of the daily grind and the unreasonable hand of fate. He starts calling it 'the hand of God.' He no longer wants to carry the burden of free will, rational thought and humanism. It is much easier to say 'OK, there is God, he is taking care of everything, I will leave it with him because I am helpless."'
The 49-year-old Mistry emigrated from Bombay to Toronto in 1975 and worked as a customer service manager at a bank before his 1987 story collection, "Swimming Lessons" was published. The stories were followed by the novel "Such a Long Journey" in 1991. Mistry lives outside Toronto with his schoolteacher wife, Freny. Despite living in Canada for three decades, Mistry develops vivid portraits of Bombay and its struggling middle class.
"I don't feel that it is at a distance," said Mistry of living abroad but writing about India. "I feel Bombay is very close to me. Living outside of Bombay is helpful to me in one way … living in that frenetic city, getting through the daily grind, I probably wouldn't have the heart or the energy to write. Being in a safe, comfortable place in Toronto does make it easier."
Bombay always has been seen as a city where Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups could live in peace. With the recent bloody riots in India, where Hindus and Muslims were killed, the future looks dark. "Bombay always represented the hope of India," said Mistry. "I use the past tense because the last 10 years, there is a question mark. Look, if people can live in Bombay cheek-by-jowl, then they can do it in the rest of India."
In his novels and the short stories in "Swimming Lessons," Mistry writes about fellow members of the Parsi community, an ancient Zoroastrian religion that migrated to India from Persia 1,300 years ago. "Worldwide, the community is 150,000. In Bombay, it is 65,000," said Mistry. "The Parsis have been called the Jews of India, but it is not because of persecution. The Parsi are insignificant in number in Bombay, a city of 14 million, but their contributions have been outstanding in every walk of life - in shipbuilding, in industry."
Even after great success as a writer, he has no plan to move back to Bombay. "There is no point in moving back," he said. "That would be a second migration and I don't have the energy for it. One migration is enough for a lifetime. Even if I had the courage to uproot myself and go back to Bombay, I wouldn't feel at home there. Once I made the choice to leave, I am forever suspended between the two cultures. I have no choice."