Fighting for Dignity Amid The Indian Maelstrom [book review]

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

If you ever end up as a passenger on a commuter train in Mumbai, there’s one word you will rapidly get accustomed to hearing.

Adjust

It’s the cry that goes up at each station as a new batch of passengers scramble to board an already crammed train. This will be a train built to carry around 1,000 people. But there are 4,000 who need to use it to get to work each day.

A Fine Balance

The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limits.

Prologue: A Fine Balance

Every seat is occupied. Passengers hang out of doors because there’s no standing space inside. Some have taken to the train roof. But the hoards on the platform still insist on boarding so the rule is everyone already inside, has to ‘adjust’ to accommodate the newcomers.  

Adjust isn’t just a word; it’s an expression of an attitude to life in Mumbai and across the whole of India.

Adjustment and adaptation is how people in India deal with pretty much anything. Lack of physical space; new political regimes; half finished roads; energy shortages. The response invariably seems to be “We will manage this.” . There’s even a name for this attitude – bharosa – a type of trust, faith, belief and confidence that things will just work out in the end.

Survival is a Balancing Act

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Adjustment, flexibility, balance. The four characters in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry constantly bring those elements into play as they try to navigate the maelstrom that is India.

The novel is set during the State of Emergency in the mid 1970s, a time of political turmoil and human rights violations, including detention, torture and forced sterilisation. Although the prime minister Indira Gandhi is never named, her presence is felt throughout the novel as the instigator of a period of cruelty and corruption, press censorship

These events serve as a backdrop for a tale of four strangers whose lives intersect in a cramped apartment in an unnamed city by the sea .

Strangers in Adversity

Dina Dalal is a spirited Parsi widow who is determined to maintain her independence from her rich brother and his pressure to re-marry. She supplements her income as a seamstress by renting a room to Maneck Kohlah, a naive college student from a hill station.

Joining them are two tailors, Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash who had to flee their village as a result of caste violence. But their hopes of sanctuary and a new life in the city are dashed the very night they arrive. Jobs are scare and accommodation limited to a shack in a slum near a ditch running with raw sewage.

The life of a poor working man is a precarious existence they discover. As one of Mistry’s most memorable, and horrific characters The Beggerman puts it:

People forget how vulnerable they are despite their shirts and shoes and briefcases, how this hungry and cruel world could strip them, put them in the same position as my beggars.” 

As circumstances thrust the four strangers together they find that survival requires constant re-adjustment of their attitudes and expectations. As one character explains the reality to the tailors:

“You cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge 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. In the end it’s all a question of balance.”

Which sounds good in theory but these two men get more than their fair share of despair in A Fine Balance. They lurch from one crisis to another: a forced labour camp; a slum clearance programme; compulsory castration. The only beacon of hope is the growing friendship they enjoy with Dina and Maneck.

Legitimised Violence and Anarchy

Rohinton Mistry portrays the huge effort of will it takes for the poorer members of Indian society to survive. All around them they see corruption, social anarchy and violence but little regard for individual desire, hopes or dreams.

Most of the plot is driven by Rohinton Mistry’s intention to show the worst elements of Indian society. The State of Emergency facilitates a period of legitimised violence and repression but Mistry shows that it also gives free rein to a world in which people will do anything to survive, even if what they do, harms other people. It’s a country of mob rule, where the helpless are exploited by those on the next rung up the social ladder.

As the characters move from distrust to respect and friendship, A Fine Balance provides a panoramic view of the constant struggle by Indian working people to maintain dignity and to survive in a world determined to crush them.

The Fine Balance of Despair And Hope

One ‘solution’ advocated by part of the population, is to balance positivity with despair. Yet it’s no surprise that at times some of Mistry’s characters are forced to question the validity of such an attitude. As Maneck reflects:

Did life treat everyone so wantonly, ripping the good things to pieces while letting bad things fester and grow like fungus on unrefrigerated food? Vasantrao Valmik the proofreader would say it was all part of living, that the secret of survival was to balance hope and despair, to embrace change. But embrace misery and destruction? No.”

Later, a rent collector forced to get heavy handed with his tenants asks:.

This was life? Or a cruel joke? He no longer believed that the scales would ever balance fairly.

The Fine Balance is a story saturated with pain relieved with few glimmers of hope. By the end of the book we’ve become such good friends with these 4 people, so invested in their lives that you hope they achieve even a modicum of happiness. But the closing pages bring a sickening finality to such hopes.

A Fine Balance: Fast Facts

A Fine Balance is the second novel by Rohinton Mistry. Published in 1995 it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the Giller Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.

Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry was born in 1952 and grew up in Bombay, India. In 1975 he emigrated to Canada, where he began a course in English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

His debut novel, Such a Long Journey, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and the Governor General’s Award, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 9, 2019, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Oh, I recently bought this book and this review has me excited to get around to it. Agree with JacquiWine that your review makes the novel sound broad in scope yet intimate in detail, which is a great recommendation.

  2. One of my favourite novels from before I was blogging. I still remember it so well.

  3. I think this has to be one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read. It was made all the more so by discussing it with a friend who is married to a man from Mumbai (interestingly he and his family still refer to it as Bombay) and said that she could vouch for every word of it.

  4. I’m afraid I found this one tilted so far towards despair that it lost any sense of balance. But I realise I’m in the minority – which is not an unusual place for me to be! Glad you enjoyed it more than I did.

    • It feels odd to say I enjoyed a book which is so bleak. Ive seen a few reviews which talk about the fact the book contains some laughter -but I must admit I didn’t see much of that

  5. Funnily enough, a friend was talking about this novel the other day, citing it as a modern classic. It sounds excellent – broad in scope yet intimate in detail. No wonder you were impressed.

    • Its certainly broad in scope but because we see the events through the eyes of just these few people it does have that sense of intimacy. I suspect if this had been something attempted by Salman Rushdie it would have been a very different tone of book.

  6. I read this ages ago and it broke my heart, the characters are so vivid and then terrible things happen…
    I like the way you’ve framed this review around the concept of adjustment.

  7. Great review. I am currently reading A Passage to India for a reading group. I wish I was reading this one instead, but I will get to it.

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