A Fine Balance — Rohinton Mistry

Song of the Day: ‘Ma jeunesse fout le camp’ by Françoise Hardy

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Some time last autumn, we were walking around uptown Whittier (one of those little towns sprawled across Southern California, one drives by but hardly ever visits) and happened upon a second-hand bookstore. It was such a cute little shop, the books on the shelves haphazardly arranged into some form of an ordering semblance. I found the entire place quite charming. Anyhow, browsing about and wondering what to get — it’s almost second nature, I walk into a bookstore and I have to buy a book — one of my friends suggested A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. ‘You’ll love it A.!,’ he said. ‘It’s a wonderfully written human story.’ I wanted to ask if other books weren’t human stories but decided that it was best to not start that debate.

Months later, looking for a new read, I found the book under a pile of other yet-to-be-read books. And in hindsight, I’m glad that I made that choice. I must admit, though, that the density of the book combined with Mistry’s style of writing meant that I took my sweet time reading this book. There was just so much to take in.

Having said all that, you must be wondering, ‘So what is this novel about?’ Let me try to recap this in the most spoiler-free manner possible.

Mistry’s novel covers the years between 1975 and 1977 when India was placed under a state of Emergency by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in order to avoid the political consequences of being found guilty of electoral fraud. This is a period marked by huge political unrest and gross human rights violations, including detention, torture, and mass forced sterilisation. Indira Gandhi is never named, just referred to as the ‘Prime Minister,’ but she is a sinister presence.

The narrative is punctuated by flashbacks to scenes from before Independence, from during Partition, and from the period after Independence, when it was becoming apparent that political rhetoric and government action on promised social reforms have failed to coincide. The Emergency functions as a massive instance of post-Independence disillusionment with governmental processes. The novel culminates in a shift forward to 1984, to the days after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguard. The novel works through a series of loosely strung episodes, relying for continuity on a stable set of characters. The episodes portray personal histories of an Untouchable family, of a young Parsi student, Maneck Kohlah, and of the central female protagonist, Dina Dalal, against the canvas provided by the political history of India’s shift to independent nationhood and beyond.

The novel begins with the convergence of three sets of characters, in an unnamed seaside city, in Dina Dalal’s flat in 1975. Dina is a Parsi widow in her forties desperate about maintaining her independence, which is symbolised by her possession of the flat. In order to keep herself financially afloat, she accepts tailoring contracts from an exports firm, and advertises for two tailors who would work in her flat, making clothes to order. Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash (Om) are two tailors from one of the Untouchable castes, who have come to the city in search of work, and they answer Dina’s advertisement. To further support her independence, she takes in a paying guest, Maneck Kohlah, a student and son of an old school friend. With quite a number of substantial flashbacks to their past, the novel plays out the relationships among the three sets of characters, leading to a temporary suspension of the disabilities of femininity and of Untouchability in the domestic arena. The levelling of hierarchies of gender and caste is made possible by the gradual release of sympathy and respect between Dina and the tailors, aided by Maneck acting as a moral catalyst. In the end, personal kindness and sympathy fail as solutions, not because they are shown to be inadequate, but because the political chaos of the Emergency intervenes like an uncontainable and irrational force to frustrate the personal quests for a modus vivendi.

The Literary Review, with some justice, called A Fine Balancethe India novel, that novel readers have been waiting for since E.M. Forster.’ In this case, Forster’s India, the Raj of King George V, where Britons and Indians hovered awkwardly on either side of an unbridgeable gap, has given way to the ‘Gunda Raj’ of Indira Gandhi, where Hindus are separated from Muslims, and Parsis from Sikhs, and the immemorial laws of caste facilitate the brutal exploitation of the helpless by the powerful as the corrupt government leads the way.

The novel is littered with interesting side characters. The most compelling and memorable is the Beggarmaster, a terrifying fusion of cruelty and compassion. He literally buys beggars, often children; sends them to doctors for ‘professional modifications’ (limbs amputated, eyes put out); and sets them up on street corners, then claims a cut of their take. A figure of nightmare, in fact; yet he cares for his beggars with the utmost vigilance, and functions as an honourable protector and insurer in an anarchic world where the police have become more threat than protector.

Omigosh! Definitely a great read for me, but all of my emotions were shot to hell. Did a world like this really exist in 1970s India? Heaven forbid! Sadly, trying to do research to write this review, my surface forays into the period have been just as bleak. As hard as it is to put into words all this book represents, what do I think?

‘You see, we cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes,’ he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.

There are times when one has to focus and ponder. The world out there is large and beyond what our imaginations could muster at their best. Of course this pondering is an illusion. I mean, who isn’t given to fanciful thoughts as though that would marshall the powers of the mind. Yes, we worry about things, ponder things, and even dream about different places, or even about being a different person altogether. And these can sometimes become obsessions of their own as we dwell on them; especially the more tired, overworked, stressed and sleep-deprived we become living in a fast-moving world.

But it is hardly a matter.

At the end of the day, I can go home, take a hot shower (wash away the aches, worry and stress), eat a hearty meal, and sleep in a comfy bed. I have never been in a state where my very existence was questioned. I also have rights that protect me from government. I don’t have to bribe my way for the police to protect me. I have family and friends who wish me well and will lend a shoulder to lean on should I falter. I live in a bubble of civilisation that almost insures me a certain length of a lifespan.

That means that the time I spend pondering, I’m doing so with a mind that has the luxury of worrying about something more than just basic needs. As pertinent or large as my ‘problems’ become they are still …

but a small matter.

Reading A Fine Balance, I felt shame that I knew so little. I had some inkling of how things were (and in some ways still are) in India, but even my ‘knowledge’ was nothing compared to it being documented, fictionally yes, to what the reality was/is. The same could be said of many other places in this world. It literally knocked me out of my little bubble of my life and put me in a whole other place. Even for a person who has lived in different ‘Third-world’ countries, I was never exposed to this level of life. I was always comfortable. I guess the old saying in this sense is quite apropos that a great novel can transport you from one place to another.

There are a vast array of characters in this novel. Some are at a higher economic level than the rest, but regardless of their circumstances none can feel safe, no one can worry about matters beyond the most basic needs of water, food, and shelter.

This is probably one of the most depressing books I have read in my entire life. It is not only chronicling four bleak lives without the slightest hint of hope or redemption, but it does so in a comprehensive, unforgiving manner. I kept asking myself, ‘Where is the fine balance?’; and ‘Why couldn’t Mistry weave a thread of hope through his quilt of a story?’

Without spoiling anything, I think it would have made the suffering meaningless. You may be thinking right about now: ‘Now that is a bunch of bull, if I ever heard any. There are plenty of books that involve characters who suffer greatly only to emerge triumphant and all the better for it, so what makes these ones different?’ It is both the nature and degree of their suffering. Their experiences are so brutal, so dehumanising, that any serious redemption (especially considering the politico-socio-economic reality of the times) would minimise them and be quite fantastic. In order to emerge from such experiences triumphantly, it would have to be through actions of their own doing, through some form of resistance that overcomes adversity. That would contradict the sense of powerlessness that Mistry wants to communicate, the utter helplessness in the face of an implacable political climate created by corrupt politicians and police, and reinforced by rigid social hierarchies.

That said, as close to being true as fiction can get, both in verisimilitude and in attitude, A Fine Balance is still a work of fiction. It is neither uplifting nor endearing but wearing. Even the most optimist would feel besieged by Mistry’s careful and persistent erosion of everything good from the world of the novel. However, I do believe that it is a must-read, as ‘Mistry needs no infusions of magical realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is quite magical enough.

Till Next Post!

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