The Perils of Religion: A review of Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters
by Judith Johnson
Buddhist practice helps us to appreciate that our personal experiences are just one expression of the universal experience of being human. Our basic human tendencies are experienced in all religions and all cultures, which is why in Prince George people can benefit from various Buddhist practices developed in a very different cultural setting from this one. Good novels always address universal aspects of human life, and I found it helpful as well as entertaining, to see how the very skilled novelist, Rohinton Mistry explored the lives of ordinary people in Bombay. He has brought me face to face with myself more than once.
Sometimes a comedy, sometimes a tragedy, sometimes both in the same paragraph; Family Matters deals sympathetically with an aging patriarch, and equally sympathetically but less deeply with the women whose role it is to care for him. Rohinton Mistry's Dickensian style with its rich detail allows the western reader to enter the lives of ordinary people in India, identifying with the struggles of each character in turn, feeling how each is shaped by their particular circumstances.
Like Dickens, Mistry gets away with being a bit didactic as the detailed unfolding of believable lives prepares the reader to appreciate succinct statements of universal truths. Family Matters rotates around a statement that comes from a wealthy and idealistic business man: "all our stories -- your life, my life -- they're the same. . . there is only one important story: of youth, and loss, and yearning for redemption. . . Just the details are different." In Dicken's Uncle Scrooge we have an example of complete redemption and happiness following a brutal self examination. (Scrooge is a great example for Buddhists to follow.) Family Matters is less optimistic than A Christmas Carol: a potential spiritual transformation is mired down in the self righteousness and hypocrisy which are the main perils of religion.
Religion is explored mostly through the character Yezad, the patriarch's son in law. The family is Parsi, the religion Zoroastrian. When Yezad overcomes his sophisticated westernized rejection of the family religion and purchases sandalwood to be burned at the fire temple, it is easy to see how the smell of the sacred fire and the peace of the silent temple work together to promote contemplation. Yezad, a skeptic, is driven into the temple by his own guilt, and by the crowding, chaos and financial stress that ensues when his very ill and very elderly father in law is unceremoniously dumped in his apartment by his wife's half sister and half brother.
For a short period after Yezad returns to the temple of his childhood there is some genuine self examination. He discovers some humility and empathy and becomes a better father, a better husband, and a better son-in-law. Yezad's employer is the idealistic businessman who says "all our stories. . .they are the same," and I kept hoping that this character would help Yezad out of his financial mess. But pride prevents Yezad from taking his problems to his sympathetic and easy going boss. The boss, who is rather insensitive in spite of his good intentions, consistently misses signs that Yezad is under intolerable stress. Instead of soliciting assistance Yezad pretends that nothing is wrong and engages in some really shady behavior, enlarging his burden of guilt. He runs from facing his own inability to cope and stay ethical at the same time by becoming rigidly and self righteously religious, projecting the blame for his own behavior on everyone from God to his neighbors. By the end of the book, as the consequences of his ethical failures pile up, religion has become just another way to prop up a wounded ego and Yezad has become obnoxious and harmful in the extreme.We have followed the twisting of Yezad's spirit as he slides downhill from penitent supplicant to zealous bigot.
Religion is also explored through Yezad's wife's half sister, Coomy. Coomy is an interesting character, but underdeveloped. Perhaps it would be too difficult for Rohinton Mistry to enter the mind and spirit of his female characters in the depth that he manages with his own gender. What he gives us of Coomy is tantalizing. She is a strong person, limited by the confining role of stepdaughter. She spends a lot of time at fire temple, but appears to get little relief from suffering. Lacking the power to act she bullies her weak willed brother into carrying out her mean ideas. We never find out how the Parsi religion fails Coomy, or how she fails to connect with its positive aspects. Her inner life is not fully described, although we do see how she nurses her grudges and uses them to justify her self centered meanness. She must be as tormented as Yezad as she alternates between going to fire temple and indulging in blatantly selfish and deceitful behavior, apparently without being aware that she is violating the most fundamental tenets of her religion which are "good thoughts, good words, good deeds."
Yezad's wife, another interesting but underdeveloped character, seems to have the most balanced attitude to religion, not being comfortable with Yezad's initial abandoning of the Zoroastrian religion, or with his new aggressive orthodoxy. Although she is aware of some of Yezad's self deception, she can't help him out of the self righteous hell which is poisoning his relationships because he has all the power in the family, and what he desperately needs is a swift and powerful kick in the rear end.
Real life never ends in a nice neat denouement, and neither does this novel, although the underdeveloped Coomy is dealt with a bit too neatly. As the novel ends there is a sense of possibilities yet to be played out, with flickers of hope and dark clouds of impending conflict. This is a satisfying place to leave Yezad's spiritual development, hoping life will force him away from the delusion that he is righteous, back to self examination and more satisfying human connections.