Forty-eight hours after finishing Rohinton Mistry’s sweeping narrative set in India between 1975 and 1984, I remain gripped by the story, unable and unwilling to relinquish this astonishing, transformational odyssey.
The characters are unforgettable: the beggar known as Worm who, lacking legs and hands, scuttles along the pavement on a wheeled platform; Beggarmaster, who protects and controls a stable of beggars, making “adjustments” to their bodies to increase their supplicant appeal; Monkey-man, who makes a living of sorts with his pet monkeys and murders his dog for killing them; Avinash, the college student who pays dearly for his political activism, and Rajaram, who initially makes his living selling hair and eventually is transformed into “the very very saintly” Bal Baba.
These are only minor characters yet Mistry’s genius lies in drawing them with such delicacy, such compassion, and such an eye for detail that they live and breathe in every word, every action. As a reader to whom character is everything, I am in awe of his talent. As individual as these characters are, they are also universal – they are Everyman and Everywoman, overcome by circumstances beyond their control.
A Fine Balance takes place in “an unidentified city” during the final years of Indira Ghandi’s turbulent reign. (Ghandi is never referred to by name, simply as The Prime Minister.) Two tailors – Ishvar and his nephew, Omprakash – come to the city from their northern village in order to seek employment. They find work with a widow living in a small apartment in the slums. Dina Dalal has refused to remarry after losing her beloved husband and insists on living on her own, much to her brother’s chagrin. She supports herself with her sewing but after 20 years her eyesight is failing and she’s in danger of losing her apartment. As a way to keep her head above water, she hires the tailors to work for her and also rents out a room to a college student, Maneck.
Over the course of a year, these four strangers become like family. They support and assist each other and give each other hope that, in spite of the tempestuous times, they will abide and prosper. Ishvar dreams of finding a wife for his nephew; Om longs to return to his village; Maneck dreams of his family home in the mountains; Dina clings to her independence.
The odds, however, are stacked against them. The old Yiddish adage comes to mind: “Man plans, and God laughs”. The Prime Minister declares a state of emergency which lasts for almost two years. During that time opponents and critics of the government are detained and tortured, the press is censored, and a program of compulsory sterilization is carried out to limit the population. Our four heroes, along with most of the other characters, fall prey to bureaucratic quotas and regulations that make no sense, not even to those who fulfill them. Justice and the rule of law are suspended…the inmates have taken over the asylum.
The litany of terrible things experienced by the men, women, and children who inhabit these pages is almost beyond belief. Believe it, Mistry is saying. At the beginning of the book, he includes a quote from Honoré de Balzac which ends with the words: “But rest assured: this tragedy is not fiction. All is true.” If that’s the case, it makes the book all the more heart-rending. And humbles those of us who lived during those times and knew little or nothing about them.
Even without the human rights abuses committed by government officials and their lackeys, life for India’s poor and illiterate population is circumscribed by a rigid caste system. Ishvar and Om, as members of the “untouchables”, occupy the lowest rung. Born into lives of poverty, oppression and degradation, they’re relegated to the lowest jobs and are humiliated, beaten, and even killed with impunity. Their efforts to raise themselves above their origins are doomed to failure. And yet you read on, hoping they might be the exception to the rule.
A Fine Balance is not, as you might imagine, a particularly upbeat novel. There are amusing moments and there are shining examples of humanity and pure decency in even its darkest parts. Overall, though, this is a wretched story beautifully written. Having invested so heavily in the characters, I kept hoping right to the end for some relatively happy ending for at least one of them. But Mistry doesn’t waver. He has set a bleak course, both for himself and the reader, and he succeeds. Magnificently.