"Prince Charming didn't appreciate our humour," said Mr. Burdy. "But there was no need to insult us."
"I think he was just quoting from a book," said Mr. Kotwal.
"My big mistake," said his father, "was books. Too many books. Modern ideas have filled Nari's head. He never learned to preserve that fine balance between tradition and modernness."
"Time weal pass and he'll become normal again," said Soli. "Don't worry, prosid one step at a time."
"Exactly," said Mr. Burdy. "Act in haste, repent at leisure. Remember, slow and steady always wins the race."
Disregarding their own advice, in a matter of days his parents' friends arranged an introduction for him. "You will meet Yasmin Contractor, a widow with two children," they told him. "And that's the best you can expect, mister, with your history."
Either this widow, they explained, or a defective woman--the choice was his. What sort of defect? he asked, curious. Oh, could be cock-eyed, or deaf, or one leg shorter than the other, they said breezily; or might be someone sickly, with a weak lung, or problems in the child-bearing department--it depended on who was available. If that was his preference, they would make inquiries and prepare a list for him.
"No one is denying you are handsome and well educated. Your past is your handicap--those wasted years, which have thrown you beyond the threshold of forty. But don't worry, everything has been considered: personality, family background, cooking and housekeeping skills. Yes, the widow is our number-one choice. She will make you a good wife."
Like an invalid steered by doctors and nurses, he drifted through the process, suppressing his doubts and misgivings, ready to believe that the traditional ways were the best. He became the husband of Yasmin Contractor, and formally adopted her children, Jal and Coomy. But they kept their father's name. To change it to Vakeel would be like rewriting history, suggested his new wife. The simile appealed to his academic soul; he acquiesced.
And that, perhaps, was my first mistake, thought Nariman, still struggling with the buttons on his birthday gift. How had Jal and Coomy felt, as children, having a different name from the rest of the family? Had they resented it? Felt left out? He should have considered their perspective before agreeing with Yasmin. He should have tried to make up for the loss they had suffered with their father's death, tried to give them the normal childhood they had missed, taken them on excursions, on picnics, played games with them, tried to be a friend to them . . . and perhaps things might have turned out differently. But the knack of thinking like a child, empathizing, were skills he had not learned then. Nowadays it was so much easier.
Defeated by the buttons, he put the shirt aside and started for the wc. His stomach was rumbling ominously. He tried to remember what he had eaten, as he went down the long passageway to the back of the flat. It was the only toilet of the three that still worked.
Each step was an effort of concentration, while his shaking hand sought support from the wall that was covered with large pictures hung high along its length. His forefathers brooded in their dark frames, their stern expressions and severe mouths looking down on him during his frequent trips to the wc. He often worried about reaching the toilet in time. But this unhappy flat, he felt, at least justified the gloomy style of portrait photography. To his eyes, the ancestral countenances grew increasingly cheerless with each passing day.
He shot the bolt in the door and sat, grateful that the sole surviving toilet had a commode. He couldn't imagine how he would have managed to squat in either of the other two.
Down at the other end of the passageway, Coomy was calling into his room to hurry, that Roxana's family would soon be here. Her steps approached the wc, and she tried to open the door.
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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