Read: March 2008
It is 1975 and Indira Gahndi has been accused and found guilty of election fraud. While Gandhi appeals the decision, the opposition rallies en masse, calling for her resignation. Strikes by unions and protest rallies paralyze much of the country. Claiming the country is “threatened by internal disturbances,” Gandhi declares a State of Emergency and begins to crack-down on political opposition while instigating policies aimed at making India beautiful again.
In these turmultuous times four characters from across the caste spectrum come together in Bombay, drawn together by common need to escape the crazy world they are living in. Maneck Kohlah is a young student from the northern mountains sent to college in the city to study refrigeration and air conditioning. Ishvar and Omprakesh are uncle and nephew from the ‘untouchable’ caste, former leather workers who chose to train as tailors but are now fleeing their native village after their entire family was murdered in a caste killing. Dina Dilal is from a traditionally wealthy family but has been widowed and now struggles to survive and support herself independantly in her deceased husband’s flat. Looking to supplant her income, Dina takes a lodger (Maneck) and hires two tailors (Ishvar and Om) to make clothes for export to the west.
Drawn together by necessity, and despite their considerable social differences, these four disperate characters gradually come to form a tightly knit group and although none of them realise it, Dina’s house becomes a safe haven from which the troubles of the outside world seem temporarily forgotten. As Dina says to Ishvar early on, “Government problems - games played by people in power. It doesn't affect ordinary people like us.”
The tragedy of A Fine Balance is that it shows in dramatic fashion, just what can happen when government policy comes to intrude upon everyday life. The safe haven can last only so long before the outside world comes crashing back in, and when it does each of their lives will be transformed dramatically, both by the harsh, repressive times and the experience of family they enjoyed under Dina’s roof for that year in 1975.
A Fine Balance is epic in every sense of the word. It traces a careful balance between the catastrophic and fatalistic on one hand and hesitant hope and wonderful moments on the other. This is not a book concerned with politicians or government politics, but with the ordinary people affected by their decisions. The politicians are the ghosts of the novel, the absent presences, lurking out of the picture, dictating events disembodied from behind a line of policemen, corrupt businessmen and goondas. Instead we follow the four characters as they stumble from one catastrophe to the next, supported, assisted and victimised by a steady array of supporting cast who circle the action repeatedly, dipping toes into the plot here and there. We travel back with the characters to trace their journey to where they are now, we visit distant villages, picturesque mountains, and bustling cities, as the narrative slips seemlessly from character to character, sliding in and out of their heads, making life seem so much larger than any one character, so much more than can ever be chronicled even in a 600 page epic like this. With cinematic scope and an eye for the pertinent, Mistry captures a moment in time, allowing the reader to almost smell the words and taste the action.
However, and although the characters are intimately drawn and thoroughly three dimensional, I found their endless virtue slightly annoying. There are many books where the characters are nihilistic or self destructive – see A.M. Homes Music for Torching or A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise for two such examples – and in these the suffering is deliciously self induced, satisfying and almost beautiful. None of that here. Few books treat their subjects in such a thoroughly victimised way. Mistry makes the four main characters verging on the angelic: they are philosophical, thoughtful, generally caring and stoical in the face of suffering. It is society that is at fault for their sufferings: the political Emergency that has been declared, overpopulation, poverty, the caste system, religion. For their suffering, the four main characters are largely blameless.
In doing this, A Fine Balance teeters on the brink of annoyance. As a café worker says to Ishvar and Om one day, “You fellows are amazing…Everything happens to you only. Each time you come here, you have a new adventure story to entertain us.”
And that is what the characters are: symbols for the wider suffering of the population. Into four lives Mistry has woven a nation’s pain. They are characters to make a point, it all gets a little too much. While I quite liked each of them, I never wholly related to them. They are too quietly accepting of their victimhood, they do not fight or rage like you would hope. On the other hand some of the more peripheral characters are brilliant. Particularly the Beggermaster, whose goonda enforced control of the beggers means they pay him a cut of their takings even though he has personally mutilated many of them as children to make them more profitable. But he is a thoroughly decent man, cares about his ‘employees,’ is generous and willing to help those in need, targets his violence against those in power not the little people he works with. Then there is the guilt-ridden rent collector, and the quiet proof-reader come lawyer who became a political sloganeer and ruined his voice shouting slogans for corrupt politicians. This ambivalence of character I find much more satisfying than the clean slate innocence of the main characters. And there are many more supporting characters whose wandering throughout the plot brings it alive.
Do not read A Fine Balance if you require a pleasant read. It is harsh, often horrific and just when you think things may be sorting themselves out it unleashes a fresh wave of suffering and retribution upon its characters. Remorseless, oppressive, disconsolate, A Fine Balance is also hesitantly optimistic in a barren sort of way. Just as I like it.
In the epigraph, Mistry quotes Honeore de Balzac in Le Pere Goriot:
“Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.”
Don’t you just love it? In one quote Mistry makes it all so much more immediate. Everything the characters go through – from Maneck’s privileged college horrors to Ishvar and Omprakesh’s repeated caste mistreatment –resonates with the timbre of thousands, for these things never happen to one or two people, but to whole communities. What is fiction, what is reality? Can you construct life through a tapestry of familiar events or is it just a bunch of things that happen over which you have no control? Such are the questions at the centre of this novel.
Bombay during the State of Emergency is not new ground for fiction, Salman Rushdie’s epic Midnight’s Children also treads the streets of Indira Gandhi’s Bombay. But where Midnight’s Children makes the mundane absurdity of India’s Emergency feel magical, Rohinton Mistry makes the mundane feel mundane, the sufferings of life are treated as nothing more or less than that, the sufferings of life. And despite their continued accumulation, the novel is primarily about the things that happen in between the moments of horror, the human interaction and generosity, the ability of people to survive, the power of a simple smile to brighten the day. If you take one thing from this book, perhaps it should be this. As Ishvar comments to Maneck at one point:
“You know, Maneck, the human face has a limited space. My mother used to say, if you fill your face with laughing, there will be no room for crying.”
A Fine Balance is simply written and thoroughly engrossing. By making the narrative stand almost invisible Mistry achieves an almost perfect omnipotent voice, reminiscent of Dickens and Charles Palliser’s epic The Quincunx this is a book to lose yourself in. If you liked The Kite Runner, then read this, it is similar in many ways, but a far better execution of what a novel can be when written by the hands of a consummate storyteller.
7 out of 10