Culture & Thought -- Books: India All Over Again --- Experience Gambling, Sex Slaves and `the White Man's Burden'
By Salil Tripathi
The Asian Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
On the first page of Rohinton Mistry's new novel, "Family Matters" (Knopf, 487 pages, $26), Jal tells his step-father, Nariman Vakeel, "Please don't go papa, we beseech you." The unguarded reader might think something is amiss with the language and tone of the novel, which is after all set in the 1990s in Bombay. Who, indeed, would use a 19th century word like beseech in everyday conversation? But as we read further and get absorbed in the quotidian existence of Jal and his sister Coomi, (and their half-sister Roxana and her family of husband Yezad and sons Murad and Jehangir), we realize that words like beseech -- and the many other phrases and courtesies sounding anachronistic, set in freeze-frame like a sepia-toned photograph -- are entirely appropriate.

For "Family Matters" is not only the story of a microcosm, but it is also about lost time, of the Empire's lost children, unable to find a place for themselves in a rapidly transforming world. Nariman Vakeel is at ease in the rarefied world of academia, of Western philosophy and Shakespeare's Lear and T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton." He is well-versed with the form, but unable to lead a happy life, succumbing to parental wishes, spreading unhappiness around him, living out an insufficient, incomplete existence.

Pray, do not mock him, for Nariman is an ailing widower. He lives with his step-children, Coomi and Jal. Although he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he wants to assert his independence. He goes for a walk against their advice (hence “we beseech you”), and disaster strikes. With his leg in plaster, and no immediate signs of recovery, Coomi and Jal decide to dump him at their half-sister’s tiny flat. The parallel with Goneril, Regan and Cordelia is hardly unintentional.

Mr. Mistry is at his best describing how Roxana's stretched family creates space for the invalid father. First sugar is reduced in tea, then toasts go unbuttered, and finally meat disappears from curries. Yezad realizes that helping one's elders is the only way to learn to face one's own death; and as Roxana watches her son feeding his grandfather, the boy wiping a stray grain of rice stuck on his face, "she felt she was witnessing something almost sacred." Nariman appreciates the acceptance and love, but he is helpless to change destiny. He remains haunted by his past: his own failure to marry Lucy because she was a Christian and not a Parsee, her gradual loss of sanity and the bizarre death of Lucy and his wife, both falling off the ledge of the terrace of their apartment.

Hankering for a better life abroad remains an obsession. Yezad's main frustration in life has been that a decade ago a Canadian immigration official had turned down his application to migrate. He finds his sons' addiction to Enid Blyton painful: "It encouraged children to grow up without attachment to the place where they belonged," he believes. Were they to taste the muffins and kippers they crave, they would better appreciate their mother's "curry-rice and khichri-saas and pumpkin biryani and dhansak." But in the end it is the children who appear at peace with a tumultuous Bombay, and Yezad who grows more fanatical and orthodox in his adherence of Parsee rituals.

The enduring cliche about Parsees is that they are Westernized, honest, urbane, fun-loving, eccentric and tolerant. Like all cliches, there is some truth in it, and like all cliches there are exceptions. Mr. Mistry pays most attention to the cliche of honesty, showing how changing circumstances alter behavior. Little Jehangir starts accepting bribes from rich classmates by marking their poor homework right, slipping the saved money into the envelopes in which his mother keeps cash, only to get caught by the teacher. Yezad speculates on matka, a Bombay gambling pastime, frittering away the family's savings set aside for food. Later he conceives an outlandish plan to secure a promotion and pay raise: He tries to convince his whimsical boss to run for political office. The boss is a tolerant man who can't stand the bigotry of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, which is taking over the city. But he is murdered after he foolishly challenges the party's thugs who want him to change the name of his shop from Bombay Sporting Goods to Mumbai Sporting Goods.

Bombay had managed to keep the virus of communal violence from its veins until 1993. Salman Rushdie portrayed the transformation in "The Moor's Last Sigh" (Pantheon, 1997) with characteristic linguistic pyrotechnics and magical wizardry. Mr. Mistry's approach is expectedly understated: Nobody who has read his earlier works, including "A Fine Balance" (Knopf, 2001), would expect anything different.

If Mr. Mistry's novel deals with arguably India's most Westernized minority, Hari Kunzru's ambitious first novel, "The Impressionist" (Dutton, 416 pages, $24.95), deals with the whole process of Westernization, and focuses on the other lost child of colonialism: the hybrid, a man with two ethnicities racing through his veins, astride two cultures, at home in neither.

Hyped as the biggest British publishing sensation since Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" (Random House, 2000), "The Impressionist" is a complicated narrative stretching across three continents -- Asia, Europe and Africa. It begins in the sun-baked dusty Indian plains, the Kipling terrain where an English civil servant meets a half-crazed Indian bride during a flood. The civil servant is swept away in the flood, but she survives and marries a finicky Kashmiri pandit, only to die at childbirth. The child, Pran Nath, is the civil servant's son, but Kashmiris are pale-skinned so nobody notices anything or suspects he's a bastard. But then a servant reveals the secret after Pran Nath takes a step too far in his lawless reign as an unruly teenager.

Banished from the house and disowned by his caste, Pran Nath is sold as a sex slave to the court of the Nawab of Fatehpur. There, elaborate plots to use the boy to seduce a British official fail spectacularly; the official wants to educate and civilize Pran Nath. He teaches him poetry even as the Nawab's associates wait anxiously to film the act of debauchery and humiliate the civil servant to ward off a potentially lethal battle of succession. Pran Nath then escapes the dynastic intrigue and becomes Pretty Bobby in Bombay, lording over the city's red light district. With the British Raj in decline and slums festering around him, Pran Nath catapults himself in Britain, behaving the perfect Englishman, out to reclaim his inheritance. Zelig-like, he blends in perfectly in polite company before joining an expedition to West Africa, where Conrad-like, he seeks to unravel the mystery of "the White Man's Burden."

Mr. Kunzru's novel tries to do too much, and yet appears strangely circumscribed. The prose appears tired at times, which is a pity, because the plot is a delight for a student of colonialism and the literature it spawned. Not only does it abound with detailed observation of the period, it also makes allusions to Kipling, Conrad, Masters, Macaulay and Forster, among many others, as well as colonial-era heroes and villains, like Dyer, Clive, the less-chronicled hedge-planters and Skinner.

With its wide historical sweep, it is unfortunate that Mr. Kunzru chose to write most of the novel in the present tense. It doesn't help dramatize the context, nor does it make his language necessarily poetic, as Michael Ondaatje succeeded. The theme cries out for a lurid canvas and an epic narrative, with the grotesquerie of the empire in full view. Somehow, the forced discipline of the present tense limits the novel's scope. But that's perhaps intended; in Mr. Kunzru's narrative, ultimately, the illegitimate child of the empire, Pran Nath, emerges as a fake, impotent crossbreed. That may be the ultimate irony, considering that Mr. Kunzru is but the latest of a long line of writers of Indian heritage who are rewriting the canon of English fiction.


Mr. Tripathi, a London-based writer, is working on his first novel.