For generations, fictional representations of India in the West were mostly filtered through Western eyes. Now, with such writers as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry, another, richly textured view of India is emerging. Mistry, an expatriate who has lived in Canada since 1975, won three major literary prizes for his first novel. Such a Long Journey (1991) captured the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award. That sweep helped to create great expectations for his second novel. Mistry, who lives in the Toronto area, delivers on that promise with his whopping 748-page new book, A Fine Balance.
Set in an unnamed city—possibly Bombay, possibly Calcutta—in 1975, the year Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and suspended basic democratic rights, A Fine Balance tells the tale of four innocents snared in the grinding gears of history. And the postcolonial history of India, like Mistry’s story, is at once brutally simple and delicately complex, believable and incredible, perverse and humane.
The novel revolves around the small apartment of Dina Dalai, a downwardly mobile widow living alone in the city, stitching scraps of cloth into a quilt at night and trying to keep her dignity and independence during the day. Broke and desperate, she decides to take in a boarder and run a tailoring business out of her living-room. The boarder is Màneck Kohlah, a refrigerationand-cooling student from a hillside town in the shadow of the Himalayas. And to help her with her fledgling business, she takes on two woefully unlucky Untouchables as tailors, Ishvar Darji and his nephew, Omprakash.
Dina and Maneck—both, like Mistry, members of the Parsi faith and ostensibly outside the Hindu caste system—are confronted by their own prejudices and the capriciousness of a lawless society. But it is the stories of the Untouchables, Ishvar and Omprakash, that provide the moral perspective of A Fine Balance. Their voyage from a tiny village to a small town to the big city is one in which the real price of abstract social policies is paid. For these two, urban renewal—or beautification—means that their slum shanty, their only shelter, is razed. Political rallies mean being strong-armed onto a bus
and driven into the countryside to witness politicians congratulating themselves. And population control means the threat of forced sterilization.
For Ishvar, the world is no better, and only occasionally worse, than he expects. Young Omprakash, though, is at first outraged by the treatment meted out to Untouchables. It is a trait inherited from his father, Dukhi, an ambitious and capable businessman. Like Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus in the American South of the 1950s, Dukhi demands that his rights be respected, that he be able to vote as he chooses rather than as the local chieftain decrees. For this, Dukhi is tortured and put to death and Omprakash orphaned. It is in the face of seemingly never-ending loss and injustice that the tailors must find the “fine balance” between hope and despair.
Mistry’s sense of right and wrong in an indifferent world is much like that of Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist, Dickens’s tale of a 19th-century Cockney orphan—an English
Four innocents who become snared in the grinding gears of history
Untouchable—takes place in the same moral universe as A Fine Balance. Mistry and Dickens are interested in those to whom history happens, those with little control over their circumstances.
For sheer volume, though, the most obvious comparison is to Vikram Seth’s often tedious 1,349-page A Suitable Boy (1993). Seth, also an expatriate Indian now living in Britain, set his novel in the early 1950s, with the country still reeling from independence and partition and about to hold its first general election. Both novels have long descriptive passages typical of the 19th century, not the screenplay-like shorthand of the 20th. And both seem to delight in the conventions of the 19th-century novel: third-person narration, coincidence and stories overlapping improbably.
But Seth is Anthony Trollope to Mistry’s Dickens; Seth’s concerns are the subtleties of | the drawing room, not the E bald realities of the street. While Seth delights in the comedy of finding a good match for his female protagonist, Mistry writes of the politics of begging. “If all beggars have the same injury, the public gets used to it and feels no pity,” says one character in the novel. “Blind beggars are everywhere. But blind, with eyeballs missing, face showing empty sockets, plus nose chopped off—now anyone will give money for that.” Mistry and Seth do not have the wild, allembracing ambition of Salman Rushdie. In Midnight’s Children (1981), The Satanic Verses (1988) and this year’s The Moor’s Last Sigh—nominated for Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize—Rushdie dares to use fantasy and fact, religion and politics, to search the deep fictional truths in the contradictions of the subcontinent.
Still, a measure of the success of A Fine Balance is that despite occasional repetitiveness and lapses into didacticism, the reader’s attention never strays from Mistry’s narrative. To borrow the author’s unifying metaphor—the widow Dina sewing together the squares of her quilt—A Fine Balance is an intricately stitched, lovingly crafted tale that gives warmth but does not deny the coldness outside.
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