In Stanzas From the Grande Chartreuse (1855) Matthew Arnold famously agonized over being caught between two conflicting worlds: a beloved, but dead faith and whatever unknown, but no doubt chilling, forces that would replace it. Compared with the complex predicaments facing Yezad Chenoy and other characters in this splendid new novel by Rohinton Mistry, Arnold’s dilemma was a piece of cake.
Mistry himself is a Parsi, born in Bombay 50 years ago, but domiciled in Toronto since 1975. The Parsi extended family whose fortunes he recounts here is nominally headed by a gentle, retired, widowed professor, Nariman Vakeel, 79 years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The great love of his life was a Christian from Goa, Lucy Braganza; but his family pressured him into marrying a Parsi widow, Yasmin Contractor (sic), with two children, Jal (a boy) and Coomy (a girl). Yasmin bears Nariman a wonderful daughter, Roxana, but the wounds from Lucy and Nariman’s mutilated passion will not heal.
Lucy gets into the habit of climbing out on the roof of the Vakeels’ apartment complex, where she teeters on the ledge until Nariman comes and coaxes her down. But one day a bitterly jealous Yasmin rushes up and tries to drag off her tormented rival. Nariman reaches out to rescue the women from their perilous perch, but in vainthey both plunge to their death. It is a shattering tragedy, but the family’s troubles have just begun.
Jal and Coomy grow up to be stingy, shriveled, unmarried loners. They barely tolerate their ailing Pappy (whom they blame for their mother’s death); and when he breaks his ankle, they hustle him off to the tiny apartment where his daughter lives with her husband, Yezad, and their two young sons. The move is supposed to be temporary, but Coomy goads Jal into bashing in the ceiling of their stepfather’s room with a sledge-hammer and then using the accidental damage as an excuse for permanently delaying his return.
Meanwhile, the Chenoys’ problems multiply. Nariman grows more feeble and bedridden. Yezad makes a valiant effort to move his family to Canada, but is turned down by a nasty Canadian-born Japanese immigration officer, who refers to the cultured, courteous and immaculately dressed Chenoys as you people and then rejects their application when Yezad, who is a sporting goods salesman, cannot answer some stupid trick questions about ice hockey.
Desperate to do something to advance his career and fend off poverty, Yezad attempts to convince his boss, Mr. Kapur, to go into politics and let him run the store alone. He even hires a couple of actors, who impersonate thugs from the Hindu fundamentalist party Shiv Sena, to barge into Kapur’s office and shake him down (as an object lesson in just how bad life in Bombay has gotten). But Kapur merely flies into a rage; and when some real Shiv Sena operatives show up soon afterward with the rather modest demand that he retitle his Bombay Sports Emporium the Mumbai Sports Emporium (Mumbai being the city’s new nationalistically correct name), Kapur again goes ballistic and is murdered. His vicious, icy widow then fires Yezad, and he never finds another job.
Financial disaster is averted, however, when the guilty Jal decides to fix the sabotaged ceiling and invite his stepfather back home. Unfortunately, he lets an incompetent do-it-yourselfer tackle the repairs; a beam collapses and both the handyman and Coomy are crushed to death. Now completely awash in guilt, Jal invites the whole Chenoy family to move in with him. They sell their apartment in an off-the-books cash transaction (honesty, it seems, is an unaffordable luxury in Bombay), so that even with no steady income, they can muddle through. Nariman eventually dies (in his last moments he is serenaded by a woman violinist from the Bombay Symphony playing his beloved Brahms Lullaby). The jobless, disappointed Yezad turns into a Parsi fanatic, poring over sacred texts round the clock and praying at the fire temple, cursing his sons as they become more secular, Westernized and eager to cuddle with non-Parsi girls. Roxana grits her teeth, pours her love out on everyone and keeps peace in the family. Jal, now a benign, clueless Uncle, fiddles with his hearing aid and watches from the sidelines.
The many worlds Mistry’s characters inhabit simultaneously are intricate, contradictory and all-but-impossible to endure. Mistry’s India is a political nightmare, wracked by ubiquitous corruption and violence, savage and petty, religious and otherwise. The caste system continues to perpetuate its age-old cruelties. Women are oppressed and treated as chattel. Parsism is a marvelously rich tradition, but there are only 125,000 Parsis left on the planet (mostly in and around Bombay), and their numbers are dwindling. (Parsis do not accept converts; modernity and intermarriage slash away at the community.) Other Parsis may be rich and influential; but the Chenoys are trapped in shabby gentility amid a chaotic, filthy, ungovernable megalopolis, a gilt-edged slum packed with 14 million people. They speak English better than most Anglo-Saxons (along with Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, etc.). They know all about Shakespeare and W. B. Yeats, Milton, Churchill, Jackson Pollock and the Beatles. They are exquisitely cosmopolitanbut what does it get them? They live in run-down, absurdly named properties like Chateau Felicity and Pleasant Villa, where moments of felicity and pleasure are very hard to come by.
The stresses, indignities, pains and humiliations of ordinary life grind away at them day and night. Forget the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan; forget the poisonous relations between Hindus and Muslims; forget the population explosion, the surging rate of AIDS and so on. Just coping with family matters is a heroic and utterly exhausting task.
Mistry, whose earlier stories and novels (Swimming Lessons, Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance) have garnered both critical praise and a batch of prizes, tells this tale with unsentimental tenderness, deft humor and ironic intelligence. His book combines grand scope with meticulous detail. Recent years, of course, have seen a spectacular proliferation of talented Indians and Pakistanis writing in English, but Mistry has to be rated among the cream of the crop.
There is, alas, an ugly footnote to this fine record. Mistry now refuses to visit the United States, because, thanks to paranoid terrorist-profiling, he has been subjected to intrusive, insulting interrogations by American officials. And, in fact, the Canadian government is currently advising any of its citizens and residents who happen to look like Middle Easterners to follow Mistry’s example. What a world.