This appeared in Ekantipur:
A Fine Balance, the second novel by Rohinton Mistry, a Bombay-born writer now living near Toronto, Canada, moves between the four characters caught in the whirlpool of events unfolding during the emergency imposed in India by Indira Gandhi in 1975.
These four unfortunate characters are Ishvar Darji and Omprakash Darji, uncle-nephew duo who hail from an impoverished Indian village; these cobblers-turned-tailors struggle in the unnamed city by the sea (a thinly veiled Bombay), Dina Dalal, a widow from middle class Parsi family, and Maneck Kohlah, a Parsi teenager from mountainous village in northern India. The Emergency looms large like a shadow in the life of these four central characters. The 603-page novel that was the finalist for a Booker Prize revolves around them.
Dina is a vivacious young widow who lives on her own after her husband’s death. She lives on an apartment left by her late husband Rostum who was killed in an accident while cycling to fetch ice-cream for the guests at his home party. Ishvar and Om are the victims of the cruelty that is caste system in India--they have fled the caste-violence of their village. Maneck, fed up with the ragging and filth of hostel is a paying guest at Dina’s. The tailors are hired by Dina who supplies clothes to Au Revoir Export Company. Thus, necessity forces these four characters to share a cramped apartment. But they also share their stories that are marked by sadness, loss, poverty, hunger and other tragic aspects of life.
Mistry reveals the theme of the novel through the character of Valmiki, the former proofreader at The Times of India who loves to quote WB Yeats:
“You see, you cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to buzz 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.”
The novel--first published in 1995--is divided into 16 chapters; each chapter has a title such as City by the Sea, For Dreams to Grow, In a Village by a River, Sailing Under One Flag, Return of Solitude etc. It has a prologue dated 1975 and ends with an epilogue of 1984. This time frame reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s story collection Between the Assassinations that is set in the period between the murder of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi. When one of the characters, Maneck returns from Dubai after working for 8 years towards the end of the book, we are told that Indira Gandhi is killed by her security guards. Maneck encounters a country ravaged by communal violence whereby his Sikh cab driver has to shave his head and beard fearing the backlash. The novel ends as her son Rajiv takes over.
What struck me most with Mistry’s story is whenever I thought the characters have finally overcome all the obstacles, terrible things happen to them. When a defiant Om finally agrees to get married, the two tailors embark on a journey to search for a suitable bride. But soon, they are caught in a state sponsored terror. They are forced to undergo sterilization spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s infamous son. As if it was not enough, Ishvar’s legs have to be mutilated whereas Om is castrated. In the very beginning of their work with Dina, both of them are arrested and taken to a rally to attend prime minister’s speech.
It is no exaggeration to say that Mistry is a master storyteller. The descriptions are vivid, the dialogues sharp and the narrative well constructed. The chapters dealing with the struggle of Dukhi, Ishvar’s father in the feudal, superstitious and tradition bound village are very poignant, hence superb. Dukhi’s shack is put on fire by high caste people killing the family members except Ishvar and Om.
Though the character of Maneck, unlike other three, is not well drawn, there are others who complement the story. There is Ashraf Chacha, the amicable mentor of Ishvar and Narayan who pay him back by saving his family from massacre during the Hindu-Muslim riot following the partition of India and Pakistan.
There is Rustom, who meets Dina in a concert; they fall in love and marry despite the objection from Dina’s family. His fondness for cycling leads to his death. Ibrahim, the rent collector who indulges in looking back at his life with regret and bitterness because his malicious job involves threatening the tenants like Dina. The plethora of characters adds to the story that is both evocative and condensed. It also has characters like Rajaram who changes his profession only to deceive people, Monkeyman who kills the ruthless Beggarmaster—the latter runs a begging industry and even justifies the disfigurement of beggars’ organs. There is Dina’s nagging brother Nusswan.
But ultimately it’s the four main characters that are at the heart of the novel.
It is said that it’s better to read Charles Dickens (with whom Mistry is often compared) to learn about Victorian England; similarly, one should read Shakespeare in order to know about life in Elizabethan period. Echoing these lines, I would recommend a reading of A Fine Balance to know what life was like for ordinary Indians during Emergency in India. Though at times dark and melancholy, it’s a rich, rewarding book.