This novel builds a three-generation portrait of a family and is alternately funny and sad. The first chapter introduces Nariman Veteel, an elderly, retired professor of English, residing in the spacious though now decrepit apartment he inherited from his parents. It is the 1990’s in Bombay before it was renamed Mumbai. Nariman is widowed and is living with his middle-aged stepchildren who never grew up to marry or live independently. Coomy, the stepdaughter is a difficult and unforgiving person who blames Nariman for her deceased mother’s unhappy life. Jal, the stepson, is the older of the two siblings and is mild mannered and compassionate by inclination but a weak willed man totally locked into the orbit of Coomy’s influence. Nariman is suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s disease that causes him to be increasingly dependant on these two grudging caregivers, never mind that it is his teacher’s pension that supports them all. At some point he signed over the ownership of the apartment to Coomy and Jal. Later he experiences something of an epiphany when he observes that although he taught Shakespeare’s King Lear throughout his academic career oddly he had never learned its lessons.
An unfortunate accident that results in Nariman breaking a leg, leaves him totally bedridden. Coomy is beside herself with resentment and dismay when she realises she and Jal must take care of all his needs including everything from bathing to the use of a bedpan. They are two very clumsy and ill coordinated caregivers who soon have Nariman in a miserable mess. They are also utterly chagrined at having their daily routines upset as Coomy likes to spend her time in prayer and self-pity at the local Parsi temple and Jal is obsessed with what is going on at the Bombay stock exchange although he has no money to invest. They dream up an excuse to dump Nariman into the midst of their half sister’s young family. Roxanna is living in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband, Yezad and their two pre-adolescent sons, Murad and Jehangir. Their accommodations are so cramped that when Nariman is settled in their apartment one of the boys is obliged to sleep on the balcony under a tarpaulin. The arrangement is only supposed to be for six weeks and the family does its best to help Nariman through this difficult time. The youngest boy, Jehangir is especially attached to his grandfather, always alert to his needs. When the six weeks are nearly up Coomy starts to panic at the thought of having to take on the care of her stepfather again and so devises a madcap plan to postpone his return. Basically she just about wrecks Nariman’s apartment making it uninhabitable for an invalid.
On one level this story reflects the situation of many families whether they are living in India, China or Canada. On another level at times, Nariman’s family seems particularly dysfunctional. Then again, what family is not in someway dysfunctional; is it possible to be both human and perfect? Religious convictions cause conflicts down the generations. The older family members feel the weight of a responsibility to provide the younger with a spiritual road map to guide their lives while the younger grow up and are expected to live and work in a society that is increasingly secular.
Much of the appeal of this novel centers on the story of Nariman and his family’s sad but comic efforts to cope with his increasing infirmity. Many other stories are interwoven into the plot giving it richness and texture. Some of these stories are alternately about the benevolent and the destructive aspects of religion, others are about blinding bigotry, political corruption and on an individual level the ability of the human psyche to excuse those personal actions it knows to be reprehensible on the grounds of self- preservation. So much of the readability of the novel is in the way the author has blended pathos with comedy. When we laugh at the craziness of some of the characters’ actions we are laughing at what we know we are all capable of when our generosity and compassion reaches its limit and we are not the heroic human beings we would like to be.
The narrative time line of this novel is something of a zigzag. Starting with chapter one the reader is informed that part of Nariman ‘s history involves a tormented love affair with a woman who was rejected by his family because of her religion. It is in order to keep the peace within his family that he agreed to an arranged marriage with the widowed Yasmin and adopted her two children. As Nariman convalesces, his thoughts slip seamlessly between the present and his haunting memories of his unfortunate love affair eventually revealing the dreadful consequences of this relationship for both his lover and his wife. I am sure that part of the attraction of this story is the way the details of Nariman’s history are revealed. It is the unveiling of the story that is the art of the novelist not simply a marching forward of events in a rigid line.
This is one of the best novels I have read and enjoyed this year.