Sun, Dec 01, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Escape the bleakness and emptiness of life with `Family Matters'

Rohinton Mistry continues in the vein of George Eliot, focusing on narrative and human relationships, telling the age-old story of life, death and redemption

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Halfway through this meticulous, realist novel set among the Parsi community in Bombay (Mumbai), one of the characters is shown three photographs of the area where he lived as a child. The first shows the street as he remembers it, the second as it was when his parents married, and the third immediately before any buildings had been constructed.

"Funny thing is, in the end, all our stories ... they're the same," the man who has shown him the pictures comments. "In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story: of youth, and loss, and yearning for redemption. So we tell the same story, over and over. Just the details are different."

What the speaker means by "redemption" is the desire to do something with your life that saves you from the bleakness and emptiness brought on by the loss of youth, together with the thought of eventual annihilation. This search for significance, or for a meaning that people can inject into their lives, is at the heart of this novel.

The speaker in question is Mr. Kapur, and the person addressed is Yezad. Kapur is Yezad's employer, and the two men seek to give meaning to their existences in different ways. Kapur dedicates himself to civic pride. He tries to feel the city's pulse by adopting the dress of the ordinary workers, despite his middle-class background, and going to work on the impossibly overcrowded train rather than by taxi. Yezad, on the other hand, gradually reverts to the Parsi religious practice of his ancestors, in spite of his earlier skepticism and to the delight of his devout wife.

Rohinton Mistry is himself of Parsi origin, and if you want to know more about the Parsis, this book will to some extent inform you. Their religion is Zoroastrianism, the oldest of the monotheistic religions. It pits light against darkness, with a god of light called Ormazd (or Ahura Mazda -- hence the trade name Mazda for a modern brand of light bulbs). Devotees must know the position of the sun when observing their religious rituals, and their temples contain an inner sanctum in which burns a perpetual fire. When Parsis come to pray there they buy a slip of sandalwood which an attendant adds to the pile from which he replenishes the flames. The day is divided into four parts, all requiring ritual observances in which a special belt, or kusti, worn by the pious plays an important part. The dead are exposed on "towers of silence" where they are consumed by awaiting vultures.

In this, Family Matters can be compared to War and Peace in which we learn the details of Masonic ritual when the character Pierre decides to become an initiate. Masonry also has its roots in light versus dark, and takes elements from Zoroastrianism. It's not by accident that the authority figure at the center of Mozart's Masonic opera The Magic Flute is called Sarastro, or that it culminates in a Temple of the Sun, and a trial by fire.

Indeed, Mozart once attended an imperial masked ball disguised as "an oriental philosopher" and handed out a pamphlet he himself had written entitled Excerpts from the Fragments of Zoroaster.

But this new novel is at one point equally reminiscent of A Christmas Carol. The benign businessman Mr. Kapur decides, in Dickensian mode, to introduce the figure of Santa Claus to Bombay's children, thereby cutting across local religious differences, like a modern Scrooge assuming the guise of benefactor to Bob Cratchit's impoverished family and providing them with the biggest Christmas turkey in the market.

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