Off Balance

Rohinton Mistry's 'Family Matters'

The reader is left dispiritedly wondering why. Each of Mistry's previous novels carried a kind of skeleton key, an image of the kind of art to which he aspired. In Such a Long Journey it was a urine-stained wall in Bombay on which a street artist, working in chalk, drew the deities of all the cities' religions, by way of entreating the divine in the midst of squalor. In A Fine Balance it was that Balzac passage, as well as the title, which came to suggest a balance of seeming opposites: individual lives and the broader society; of hardscrabble realism and Hawthornian romance; of Western influences, such as Tolstoy, and Indian ones, such as the filmmaker Satyajit Ray; of selfless service to the story and a distinctive personal style.

In Family Matters, the nearest thing to a hint of Mistry's aims comes when Yezad, having invented a story of a shakedown by two Shiv Sena thugs in order to get a raise at Bombay Sporting Goods, reflects on the odd narrative power of the lie he has told: "The deeper he went into the story, the more his characters acquired the solidity of flesh and blood. He recognized their potential instinctively, letting them grow was easy. A little supervision was all that was needed, like a parent or puppeteer." Fiction, however, calls for more than a little supervision. There is a fine line between drama and melodrama, and A Fine Balance and Family Matters, in their different ways, make this obvious.

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