"Listen to me," he said, tired of waiting for calm to return to his limbs. "In my youth, my parents controlled me and destroyed those years. Thanks to them, I married your mother and wrecked my middle years. Now you want to torment my old age. I won't allow it."
"Such lies!" flared Coomy. "You ruined Mamma's life, and mine, and Jal's. I will not tolerate a word against her."
"Please don't get upset." Jal tried to calm his sister, furiously caressing the arm of his chair. "I'm sure what happened today is a warning for Pappa."
"But will he learn from it?" She glowered at her stepfather. "Or will he go out and break his bones and put the burden of his fractures on my head?"
"No, no, he'll be good. He will stay at home and read and relax and listen to music and--"
"I want to hear him say that."
Nariman held his peace, having spent the time usefully in unbuckling his belt. He now commenced the task of untying his shoelaces.
"If you don't like what we're saying, ask your daughter's opinion when she comes tomorrow," said Coomy. "Your own flesh and blood, not like Jal and me, second class."
"That is unnecessary," said Nariman.
"Look," said Jal, "Roxana is coming with her family for Pappa's birthday party. Let's not have any quarrel tomorrow."
"Why quarrel?" said Coomy. "We will just have a sensible discussion, like grown-ups."
Though Roxana was their half-sister, Jal and Coomy's love for her had been full and complete from the moment she was born. At fourteen and twelve, they were not prey to the complicated feelings of jealousy, neglect, rivalry, or even hatred, which newborns evoke in siblings closer in age.
Or perhaps Jal and Coomy were grateful for Roxana because she filled the void left by their own father's death, four years earlier. Their father had been sickly through most of their childhood. And during brief stretches when his lungs did not confine him to bed, he was still weak, seldom able to get through the day unassisted. His chronic pleurisy was the symptom of a more serious pulmonary disease, its two dreaded initials never mentioned among friends and relatives. Just a little water in the lungs was how Palonji's illness was described.
And Palonji, to alleviate his family's anxiety, made a running joke out of this coded description. If Jal, always full of mischief as a child, did something silly, it was due to a little water in his head. "You must plug your ears when you wash your hair," his father teased. Clumsy hands meant the person was a real water-fingers. And if little Coomy cried, her father said, "My lovely daughter does not cry, it's just a little water in the eyes," which would promptly make her smile.
Palonji Contractor's courage and his determination to keep up his family's spirits were heroic, but the end, when it came, was devastating for Jal and Coomy. And three years after his death, when their mother remarried, they were stiff towards the stranger, awkward in their dealings with him. They insisted on addressing Nariman Vakeel as New Pappa.
The word stung like a pebble each time it was hurled to his face. He made light of it at first, laughing it off: "That's all--just New Pappa? Why not a longer title? How about Brand New Improved Pappa?"
But his choice of adjectives was infelicitous; Jal told him coldly that no one could be an improvement on their real father. It took a few weeks for their mother to convince her children that it would make her very happy if they dropped the New. Jal and Coomy agreed; they were maturing rapidly, far too rapidly. They told their mother they would use whatever word she wanted. Merely calling him Pappa, they said, did not make him one.
Nariman wondered what he had let himself in for by marrying Yasmin Contractor. Neither had come together for love--it was an arranged marriage. She had taken the step for security, for her son and daughter.
Excerpted from Family Matters by Rohinton MistryCopyright 2002 by Rohinton Mistry. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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