In the Spirit of Mayhew

Frank Kermode

  • Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
    Faber, 487 pp, £16.99, April 2002, ISBN 0 571 19427 3

The Indian novel in English goes back a long way, at least to R.K. Narayan, who flourished from the Thirties to the Eighties of the last century. The achievements of Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and others now at work suggest that it still flourishes despite the opposition view that modern Indians should not write in English. India has a great many languages and English can be thought of as just one more of them, but that argument won’t wholly suffice, for the loyalty of these writers is not merely linguistic. Their allegiance is to the English novel of the 19th-century tradition, and their work has little in common with deviant strains, whether of Modernism or Postmodern magic realism, or of such mid-20th-century experimental styles as the nouveau roman. Indeed they testify to the power, or if you prefer, the inertia, of that great central tradition.

Rohinton Mistry has an affinity with Dickens, and some say with Stendhal, but the English novelist he most resembles seems to be Arnold Bennett. Bennett was a novelist of great skill and resource, well aware of the new techniques, new styles of ‘treatment’, currently being explored by Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, and aware also of the new rules of the game as promulgated by Henry James with his passion for ‘doing’. Bennett greatly admired Conrad, but decided against this kind of ‘doing’. The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) was almost contemporary with Nostromo, which he called ‘the finest novel of this generation’; but his own novel, though expertly crafted, is always mindful of the ordinary reader – the one E.M. Forster called ‘Uncle Harry’ – and is resolutely unbaffling. The relatively late Riceyman Steps (1923) showed that he could do doing pretty well if he chose; but he wrote bestsellers and Conrad did not.

It once seemed that there was to be a major technological revolution in the art of the novel, but it didn’t happen; even Joyce didn’t cause one. Prejudice against extreme forms of doing has persisted, and these talented Indians have acceded to it. This may be why, with the help of a certain post-Imperial nostalgia, they are so much admired in Britain. The first nine Booker Prize winners included four novels by Indian novelists, or novels about India, or, failing India, other parts of the old Empire. Of the thirty or so winners of the prize to date, fewer than half are native English. And even they tend to prefer solidity to fireworks.

‘Solid’ is a description that comes to mind (but it turns out to need qualification) when one is reading Rohinton Mistry. The three novels he has so far published are all long and unhurried. They contain a large number of characters, all kitted out with characteristics, attitudes, foibles and families to quarrel with. They are domestic persons with private causes for pain or anxiety but they are also subjected to the savage wear and tear of Indian weather and politics, and in general to the violence of fate. The novels contain many accidents – the action of Family Matters has its origin in one. The other books contain unfortunates who, mostly as a result of traffic accidents, are, as Mistry puts it, ‘in pitiful pursuit of ambulation’; or who fall off buildings, are crushed by the collapse of their own roofs, beaten up by the police or, when unwillingly undergoing vasectomy as required by Mrs Gandhi, carelessly or viciously castrated. Considering their ill luck their calm is remarkable.

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