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.
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.
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
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 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.
It concerns Gustad Noble. The surname is significant for this is a fairly ordinary guy who tries to do the decent thing by his family and an old friend and ends up embroiled in a political scandal.
As the book opens Noble is working as a bank clerk and trying to deal with the problems posed by his offspring. His daughter Roshan has a mysterious illness and his son Sohrab has won a college scholarship to just about the best university India can offer but, to his parent’s dismay, refuses to accept it. Such problems pale into insignificance however when Gustad receives a letter from his old friend Major Bilimoria. The major works for Indira Ghandi’s secret police and asks Gustad for some help by collecting and depositing large sums of money into an account in a false name at the bank where he works. Scandal erupts when Bilimora is arrested under suspicion he was using the money to aid guerrillas in East Pakistan.
The experience shakes Gustad’s faith in his friend and opens his eyes to political corruption in the highest echelons of government. Gustav survives although around him the country is in turmoil when the war with Bangladesh escalates.
Such a Long Journey is a finely textured look at what happens to an honest, modest guy gets compromised by events he doesn’t understand. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai with its noise and poverty and into the heart of one corner of the city, the apartments of Khodadad where Nobel and his family lives. This is 1971 and a time of upheaval in the country but in the community of Khodadad, the difficulties are of a more domestic nature, sometimes uncomfortable in nature (especially when they taunt and tease Tehmul, who is a physically and mentally disabled man with the character of a boy) but often with gentle humour (the scenes where Gustad brings home a live chicken to feed his family are hilarious).
This is a novel populated with real people, they bicker with their neighbours, they hide long term illness beneath a veneer of bravado and resort to magical potions and rituals. But just like Gustad Noble they are simply trying to do their best for their family and their friends and to negotiate the difficult world around them.
Such a Long Journey is, in short, a wonderful novel. I’ve seen comments that it’s not as good as A Fine Balance which is magic to my ears since I also have that on my shelves to read.
This was the week when I discovered that it is not a good idea to start a trip to India having left my purse containing credit cards and cash back in the departure area of Heathrow airport. Forty minutes before touch down in Mumbai I made the discovery that my sole funds consisted of a £1 coin and a 10 pence piece. Even allowing for India’s lower cost of living, that wasn’t going to get me very far.
I could do nothing for five and half hours until my husband could give me contact details for the card providers so I could cancel the cards. And hope above hope that no-one had tried to use them and access our accounts. Fortunately we were able to wire money to a Western Union outlet so I was solvent by the next day but it was a frightening experience. Our funds are intact though the purse has not been located. A narrow escape.
Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey helped distract me from my woes, partially at least. I’ve meant to read him for such a long time and it seemed the perfect moment to begin since this book – his first novel – is set in Mumbai. I do enjoy reading books set in places I’m visiting since it makes the descriptions of the setting and people more meaningful. You read a passage in the book, lift your eyes from the page and there in front of you is the very scene or close to it.
Here’s Mistry’s description of the sprawling development of one Mumbai district.
Dr Paymaster’s dispensary was located in a neighbourhood that had changed in recent years from a place of dusty, unobtrusive poverty to a bustling, overcrowded, and still dusty, nub of commerce. Crumbling leaky warehouses and rickety-staired, wobbly balconied tenements had been refurbished and upgraded, from squalid and uninhabitable to squalid and temporarily inhabitable. The sewer system remained unchanged, broken and overflowing. Water supply continued to be a problem. So did rats, garbage and street lighting. …Soon there appeared enterprising individuals who serviced motorcars, retreated tyres, , restored refrigerators and allowed the waste products of their enterprise to run where they would. The barefooted now had to skip and hop over grease slicks, oil puddles, razor-sharp fins of broken cooling coils and long, twisting snakes of vulcanised rubber disgorged by tyre re-treaders.
The only bits he’s forgotten about are the piles of bricks and rubble left by the district government as a way of pretending they are about to start work on upgrading the work. And the cows that amble along the central reservation oblivious to oncoming traffic but forcing cars, mopeds and tuk tuks to halt.
I’m back home now, shaken by the experience of being driven weaving in and out of traffic for three hours so I could see the Taj Mahal; sobered by the experience of being away from home without money and looking forward to a slightly less adventurous week.