Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.
With those words—at the beginning of A Fine Balance (1995)—Rohinton Mistry put himself forward as a great novelist. He was no newcomer: His first novel, Such a Long Journey, had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The passage was not his own, but Balzac’s. As the epigraph to a 600-page novel, though, it served as a credo of sorts. A Fine Balance (it suggested) lay in the tradition of 19th-century realism but outside of the ambit of the British empire. Its author was Salman Rushdie’s opposite, an expatriate in tidy Toronto instead of swinging London, more matter-of-fact than magical behind his clipped beard and big glasses. There would be no never-ending falls from airliners here, no punning neologisms, no human characters equipped with tails. Rather, there would be crime and punishment, sickness and death, described in a voice that like Balzac’s was earnest, fond, confiding—a voice of authentic tragedy, not fictional melodrama.
A Fine Balance found readers in America only in paperback and one at a time; yet by last November, when Oprah Winfrey made it one of her book club’s final choices, the novel was so universally admired that there has been no backlash against it. It would be pleasing to report that Mistry has beaten the devil of literary celebrity by writing a great book for his new following. But Family Matters (Knopf, 434 pp., $26) is vexingly mediocre—thoughtful, great-souled, generous toward characters and readers alike, but badly in need of a little artistry.
A Fine Balance told the story of four people drawn together in a shabby Bombay rooming house during the Emergency, when prime minister Indira Gandhi declared martial law. The student Maneck, the rural tailors Ishvar and Om, and the widow Daria Dal are a kind of cross-section of Indian society, and with transparent ease the novel shows them in all the circumstances of their lives—at work, out and about on the streets of Bombay and remote villages, facing corruption firsthand, pushing past caste divisions and the reader’s expectations alike.
In outline, Family Matters bears a resemblance to A Fine Balance—and to Such a Long Journey, its real predecessor. As the bland title suggests, it is a domestic story. The drama begins when Nariman, an aging professor in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, falls and breaks his leg. His stepson and stepdaughter, Jal and Coomy, still live in his apartment, in a block of flats called Chateau Felicity, while his daughter, Roxana, and her husband, Yezad, are raising two sons in the nearby Pleasant Villa. Coomy, a devout Parsi, is still offended that Nariman openly loved a Catholic woman during his arranged marriage with her mother, and now seeks revenge by contriving to put Nariman out. So the dying patriarch winds up in the apartment of Yezad and Roxana, making their already hard life even harder. Funds for food and utilities run short, prompting Yezad, the manager of a sporting goods store, to try to win a few hundred rupees quickly in an illegal lottery run by the Muslim cabal Shiv Sena, and his younger son, a homework monitor at school, to contribute to the family kitty by taking bribes.
Mistry’s obvious fondness for his characters is unusual in contemporary fiction, but as events take over he resorts to a kind of shorthand in telling their story. Where in his previous novels he created types and then complicated them, here he lets them remain types: Roxana the long-suffering housewife, Jal the patsy, Nariman the Lear-like patriarch, Coomy the shrewish villainess. He sketches Bombay in a few sentences and says little about Yezad’s Parsi heritage until the story requires it. The family’s poverty—the root of their problems—comes and goes willy-nilly, and their desperation is not so much dramatized as announced by the omniscient narrator.
In the great novels that are Mistry’s models, such a narrator is wiser than the characters and is able to show them to the reader in broad perspective. In Family Matters the narrator bluntly assigns emotions to the characters, at once telling them how to feel and telling the reader how to feel about them. Hearts skip beats or pound in chests; characters grumble, clench their fists, feel fear in the pits of their stomachs, weep until their vision becomes blurry, or get “lost in a cloud of optimism.” Flashbacks are introduced mechanically: “Suddenly, Yezad’s own youth was upon him. Memory began to populate the empty benches with faces from the past.” Meanwhile, Nariman, slowly expiring in Yezad and Roxana’s living room, recalls his past in italicized sections inserted at seemingly random points.
By the book’s supposed climax—a fatal accident during the renovation of Chateau Felicity—Mistry is openly writing melodrama, as if his frank embrace of the genre will make up for his lack of subtlety. What has led him there? Too much confidence in his own powers? Faltering memory of Bombay after a quarter century elsewhere? Haste to get a book to market before Oprah’s imprimatur fades? A wish to write a kind of Bollywood melodrama for Anglo-American readers? The temptation—lurking at the desk of every real writer—to just tell the story straight for a change, without cunning and artifice?
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.