Sunday Lounge | Why Rohinton Mistry's fine balance matters, 25 years on
Set in the Emergency era, the author's Booker-shortlisted novel 'A Fine Balance' remains a literary masterpiece and urgently relevant for its scathing indictment of authoritarianism
In 1995, when Rohinton Mistry published his second novel (and third book) A Fine Balance, he had been away from India for exactly two decades, living in Toronto, Canada, since he moved there at the age of 23. In the interim, he had held a day job at a bank for 10 years, taken evening classes at the university in English and philosophy, and written a collection of short stories and one novel, which had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But it was the second novel, set in the year he left India, that would make him a household name.
In 1975, as Mistry left Bombay, long before the city of his birth was rechristened Mumbai, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the infamous state of Emergency. Until it was lifted 21 months later in 1977, “Emergency” became a by-word for state-sanctioned misrule, a ruse to halt the wheels of the world’s largest and, arguably, most resilient democracy.
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In this dark phase of modern Indian history, the press was heavily censored, citizens faced severe penalties for even the mildest criticism of government. The streets of major Indian cities were subjected to a radical “beautification” drive. Beggars were ousted overnight, transported to labour camps in trucks, and forced to toil on construction projects; slums were flattened by bulldozers to end the menace of illegal squatting, leaving thousands without a home in a matter of hours. In a bid to control the rising population, mass sterilisation camps were organised. Doctors appointed by the government did vasectomies and tubectomies, with or without the consent of hundreds of men and women, most of them poor, illiterate, and usually picked up at random from the streets.
Variations on these themes persist to this day. A compliant fourth estate is still busy toeing the government line; journalists, activists and citizens who dare speak up are meted out harsh retributions; and citizenship laws have left the poor, vulnerable, and minorities teetering on an uncertain future. Until the great novel of our times is composed, A Fine Balance is as good a portrait of India as any to remind us of that immortal maxim: the more governments change, the more everything remains the same.
Although Mistry portrayed the barbaric infractions of human rights and the systemic rot in Indian politics in graphic detail, he did not once name the prime minister in the 600-odd pages that A Fine Balance ran for. With a fidelity to real life that brought to mind the great novels of Dickens and Tolstoy, his book held up a mirror to India with a candour few have done before or since.
“Penguin India had been battered by The Satanic Verses controversy a few years earlier, so we were wary,” remembers David Davidar, Mistry’s publisher in India at the time, now the head of Aleph Book Company. “But nothing untoward took place.” Mistry wasn’t as lucky with his previous book, Such A Long Journey. Two decades after it was first published, in 2010, incensed by the novel's criticism of the Shiv Sena’s aggressive brand of politics, Aditya Thackeray, then the 20-year-old scion of the Sena family, took to the streets with his followers, demanding that the book be banned from the syllabus of Bombay University. The latter was quick to obey orders, leaving Mistry to quip that “Bombay University provided deluxe service via express delivery making the book disappear the very next day.”
In spite of the political backdrop of A Fine Balance, the genesis of the story, Mistry confessed in an interview, lay in an utterly ordinary image: of a woman working away raptly at a sewing machine. It was around this solitary figure of Dina Dalal, a Parsi widow in her early 40s, that Mistry ended up spinning one of the longest novels in English by an Indian-origin writer.
Taking root in Dina’s twin personal tragedies—of losing her father when she was 12 years old, and her young husband just a few years into their marriage—the plot of A Fine Balance begins to branch out, like the tendrils of a sprawling and unpredictable plant. A pair of tailors, Ishvar and his orphaned nephew Omprakash, come to work for Dina. Maneck Kohlah, the son of Dina’s old school friend Aban, travels all the way from his home in the Himalayan foothills to study in the city. After an unsavory stint at the college hostel, he seeks refuge as a paying guest at Dina’s dingy apartment.
As these four lives come together fortuitously, there are inevitable collisions, conflicts, and clash of temperaments. But there are moments of tenderness as well, unexpected gestures of kindness, friendships forged across social divides. Like a deft conductor, Mistry orchestrates this quartet through ups and downs, before they eventually learn to coexist, even enjoy one another’s company, under one roof.
A Fine Balance paints an endearing portrait of this incongruous family unit—tied together not by filial bonds but higher principles of grace and compassion. Ishvar and Omprakash, two lower-caste chamars, lose everything in their village due to the violence inflicted on them by upper-caste Thakurs. They flee to the city to build their lives from scratch, but their makeshift home in a slum is razed by the police, leaving them on the pavements. Through a series of tragicomic events, they find shelter with Dina and Maneck, who are not only unrelated to each other but also seemingly opposed in their world views. And yet, the secular utopia that is Dina’s rag-tag household manages to survive, and even flourish, against all odds, glued together by shared values of humanity and respect. It is an arrangement necessitated by circumstance and practical needs, but also an antithesis to the divisions and inequalities spawned by Indian society.
An early critic of the novel wrote in The New York Times, “Since decency is often drab, dogged and undramatic (or at least not obviously dramatic), Dina and Ishvar are people of a kind rarely found in fiction today.” Twenty-five years on, this garden-variety decency feels all the more precious and fleeting, especially in an economically liberal India, where a culture of rampant consumption and capitalist excess has deepened the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
In contrast, in the 1970s, even as their lives are steadily emptied of material and human anchors, Dina and Ishvar continue to act out of their innate sense of generosity, justice and abundance towards those who are worse off. They may be flawed, volatile and impulsive, too stubborn for their own good, but their courage, especially in the face of unending disasters, is heroic without a doubt. Reading about their capacity to grapple with the curveballs thrown at them by life feels like a salutary exercise, especially in a world ravaged by the pandemic, where unemployment and economic crises loom large. The simple courtesies and charities that Dina and Ishvar manifest during times of crises stand as reminders that we, too, can realign our moral compasses, open our eyes to the world that surrounds us, notice the people who we look at each day without quite seeing them.
In an article in The Guardian in 2011, journalist Hannah Booth remembered reading A Fine Balance for the first time during her maiden visit to India in 2008. “Everywhere I turned were people, places and experiences lifted directly from its pages,” she wrote three years later, struck by the freshness of the experience. Indian readers of the book are as likely to be susceptible to a sense of wonder—not because Mistry shows us uniquely novel glimpses into Indian society but because his fictional world is so eerily familiar.
Step out of your home and you may as well have stepped into any page from the book. The Monkey-Man, who makes a living by showing tricks with a pair of simians and a dog (and later by making his sister’s toddlers perform a risky balancing act—the inspiration behind the cover of the first edition of the book), still walks the streets of India’s towns and villages. Rajaram, the hair-collector turned Motivator (whose job is to convince people to get sterilized) turned fugitive from justice turned Bal Baba the godman, may be the barber shaving a customer under a roadside tree. The Beggarmaster, who is the undisputed ruler of the footpath watching over the homeless, crippled and destitute, is far from being a mythical figure of imagination. Police sergeant Kesar isn’t a uniquely tyrannical oppressor. Like most purveyors of evil, he embodies the banality of it by merely following the mandate given to him by the powers that be. Be it while rounding up sleeping beggars or transporting them like cattle to labour camps, he dispenses his duties grudgingly but thoroughly. As he evicts Dina from her flat, he tells her in a fit of contrition that he must take on such deplorable tasks to earn the extra cash that would pay for his daughter’s sitar lessons.
Mistry’s genius lies in imbuing such potentially cardboard characters with a life that far exceeds the stereotypes they might have been. Just when you imagine you have seen the last of someone, you are ambushed by a fresh twist in the tale. After Shankar, a limbless beggar who moved about on a plank of wood on wheels, dies in a horrific accident, his funeral cortege turns into a gala affair. Darkly comic, the scene unfolds over several pages, with a long line of mutilated bodies dragging themselves behind the bier, stopping traffic with their sluggish progress. It’s a tableau that belongs to a painting by Pieter Breughel, the Dutch artist from the middle ages famous for his depiction of scenes teeming with the wretched of the earth, transformed by his vision of surreal gloom and all-too-real warmth.
A quarter of a century after its appearance, A Fine Balance continues to emanate its peculiar brand of hope and despair as well. “It endures because it has the one quality that defines a genuine masterpiece—indeed the only quality common to all the books of this genre that establish themselves as masterpieces and are read by generation after generation of readers,” says Davidar. “It creates a world that is entire unto itself, with characters with such propulsive power that they quite literally force themselves on the reader’s imagination from the moment they are encountered on the page.”
For readers of Mistry, it feels like a special honour to be part of his world.
LAST UPDATED08.11.2020 | 12:41 PM IST