Within Bombay's Towers of Silence, the Parsis expose their dead to hungry vultures a practice as environmentally friendly as it is macabre. Ethnic Persians who had migrated to India, the Parsis have traditionally led Bombay's commercial class. And though they have become an endangered species due to stagnating birth rates and miscegenation, their Zoroastrianism has largely removed them from the constant squabbling of Bombay's Hindus and Muslims, which a decade ago erupted into carnage and fire.
Behind the riots was the Shiv Sena, a Hindu supremacist band of thugs, whose agenda includes abolishing Valentine's Day, razing mosques and, according to writer Rohinton Mistry, subjecting innocent letters and postcards to incineration if the address reads Bombay instead of Mumbai. Such is the cultural and political backdrop of Mistry's commanding new novel, Family Matters, his follow-up to the acclaimed A Fine Balance. A Bombay native, Mistry capably evokes a city that would explode were it not for the Indians' heroic tolerance and patience. I am a born-and-bred Bombayvala, writes Mistry. That automatically inoculates me against attacks of outrage. Nariman is an old Parsi widower cared for by his children Jal and Coomy. But Coomy soon connives to move Nariman into the house of Roxana, his daughter by another marriage. Roxana's husband Yezad resents the new addition, and he takes to illegal gambling to subsidize Nariman's care. Mistry deftly shows how necessity compels Indians to embrace corruption, India's scourge. Even Yezad's son starts taking bribes in his capacity as a Homework Monitor.
Nariman becomes demented and incontinent; Yezad's boss, Mr. Kapur, abandons his dream of becoming a muckraking politician; Jal and Coomy enlist the help of a semi-competent handyman to refurbish their flat this in a Murphy's Law country where anything that can go wrong usually does.
Any novel set in Bombay must be as vast as the city. Mistry's knowledge of its customs, locales and languages is encyclopedic, his cast of characters panoramic, and his portrayal of Indian attitudes spot on. Indians perceive the use of toilet paper as unhygienic; they often converse in trite proverbs, and their attitude toward the West is decidedly conflicted. So is their attitude toward India, a great country and a hopeless one.
Indians writing in English are producing some of today's most inspiring and original fiction. And with Family Matters, Mistry's name may soon take its place alongside those of a Rushdie or a Roy. Kenneth Champeon is a writer living in Thailand. He lived and worked in Bombay for six months.