A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

I have just finished reading ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry, and I just can’t stop gushing about the genius author, who has created a larger than life story, where characters came alive from the black and white pages and performed a drama, which still has me in its grips, and I just can’t stop thanking God, who decided to give me a mundane life, saving me from all the miseries and misfortune that fell upon the poor Om and Ishwar.

When I had read Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, I was awed by his masterly approach towards illness and death, and disgusted with his cruel descriptions of animal slaughters. For me, Mistry became a symbol of paradoxes, a writer who delved into what I want to know but wish to avoid, as it is too brusque to digest.

a-fine-balance-rohinton-mistry However, as I began reading the present novel ‘A Fine Balance’, I found that Mistry has indeed overcome all his earlier bluntness. Apt to its name, in ‘A Fine Balance’, Rohinton follows a middle path, teetering on a tight rope, maintaining a fine balance between life and death, joy and misery, mock buffoonery and grotesque ribaldry. Here is a great offering by one of the most far-sighted writers, who is able to decipher the lives of common men amidst political chaos.

As was the case in his first novel, Mistry in the present novel as well, presents the story against a political backdrop. But, this time, he has chosen and done absolute justice to one of the worst times ever faced by Indian Democracy, when the fundamental rights were violated without a second thought, and the protector herself had converted into hunter. If you have not guessed by now, the novel is set in 1975, in Mumbai, when Emergency was in operation, and the political stage was ridden with rumours and hysteria.

The novel begins with an engaging prologue, where three main characters: Maneck Kohlah, Ishwar and Omprakash meet each other in a crowded Mumbai Local, faced with a horrid suicide on the rail tracks. Immediately, a bond is established between the three of them. It turns out that Ishwar is an elderly tailor, who has come to Mumbai to earn money, along with his nephew Om, and both of them are going to meet a Parsi Lady Dina Dalal, who is probably going to be their future employer. As luck would have it, Maneck is also headed to same address, albeit with altogether different motive. He is a student of Refrigeration Diploma, hails from mountains, is the son of Dina’s childhood friend, and is more a hilly man than an Urban Parsi, who is at loss in a strange place, at one of the most inopportune time. This initial rendezvous sows the seeds of a deep friendship, the three of them are going to fester, in the course of novel. As they reach their destination, the fourth pillar of the story, Dina Dalal is introduced.

By the time, I completed the prologue, Rohinton’s magic had begun to work. Even if the author had decided to tell the story from the middle of some crisis, I was game for it. But, Mistry is a methodical writer. He began with the very beginning, creating an engaging story from Dina Dalal’s childhood, how she was turned into an orphan, her loneliness, her whirlwind romance and the tragedy that reversed her good fortune. Slowly, the lives of tailors were dissected in the following chapters, wherein Mistry really made good use of the Caste Politics that is rampant in our villages. His description of Cobblers’ misery was enough to jolt me emotionally, and before I knew, I had formed a bond with the tailors, who despite Om’s vulgarity appeared vulnerable. Maneck’s tryst with destiny was likewise presented in next few pages, before the story finally changed gears and the main story began.

As I said before, the story is set during Emergency, and there were enough political banters employed by the author to make the novel come alive. Especially, the tailors were used as carriers of good and bad, the common people suffered during the trying period. While some episodes made me cry with sympathy, there were times when I was laughing out loud, at the ridiculous lengths, our politicians go to attract potential voters. The episode where Ishwar and Om were literally kidnapped to attend a Rally, was one such case. It was immensely dramatic, yet realistic. The punishment levied upon the tailors for traveling ticket-less, was equally hilarious.

The first few chapters were essentially comic, at least in contrast with what was to follow later. The four main characters were bonded in a special relationship, and the atmosphere was largely genial, with a few moments lost in the Jhopadpattis, and Labour Camp. Though, I really wish Rohinton had dwelt a little less on the vulgar innuendos, especially with Om indulging in continuous teasing of women. But, I think, Mistry did retain some of the poetic justice as Om’s excursions in prohibited territories is cut short after the piteous castration.

As I discovered while reading ‘A Fine Balance’, human nature is indeed fickle, even the most cautious of us fall into the fool traps laden by destiny. We hurriedly build castles in air, and accept dreams as reality, and the moment we feel secure, the reality hits hard, smashing us on the hard ground. And, this novel is a series of such serious quakes, that smashed the lives without a single warning. It is nothing if not tragic. Perhaps the happy events were employed to make the novel somewhat light hearted, so that the reader is able to digest the tragic shock, the author was about to give.

As the story progressed, full implications of unbridled power came into prominence. Family Planning, which is supposed to act as an aid in the development of nation, was utilized in the most horrendous manner. When people were loaded into garbage trucks by violent policemen, and forced to undergo sterilization, I was instantly reminded of barbaric Sacrificing scenes of the movie Apocalypse. Here, people were slaughtered not for their hearts, but for their tubes, in the most cruel manner, with Doctors teetering under influential Village Head Man. However, as I said in ‘The Long Walk Home’, one should really take historical and political fiction with a pinch of salt. The events may purely be a result of artistic creativity and yet appear painfully real.

As the novel approached the end, all my joy had evaporated, all that remained was the tragic amputated lives of once joyous Om and wise Ishwar. I wished to know all about their lives, and that’s where Mistry let me down. He decided to follow Maneck’s uneventful life, while keeping mum about Dalal and tailors. He hobnobbed with the tragic Riots of 1984 as well, but I do not think it fit as well as those of the events of 1975. Or perhaps, my senses were so numbed by the after effects of emergency that they failed to register another stimuli.

The novel ended, the way it had begun, all the events and characters made a final exit, and I was left lamenting with tears in my eyes, not for those who were dead, but for those who were left to live, reconciled with their fate.

This review would be incomplete without a mention of a few other characters, that kept entering and exiting, with their own special roles. The foremost amongst them is Shankar, a good hearted beggar, whose own life was as complicated, as his truncated body would appear to the passers-by. Then, there was Rajaram, a neighbor turned criminal turned saint, who was a source of much mirth and anguish to both the tailors and me. And, there was of course, another tragic man, Monkey-man, who created a ruckus with each entry, an employer of worst possible violence and cruelty. And, caught amongst this strange army was an educated Yeats inspired lawyer Vasantrao Valmik, who struck me as the voice of author himself, providing a sensible view of ‘calamity called life’ and an imminent source of some wise comments.

Though, I have tried, but I can scarcely explain my emotions in this small review. In fact, it is next to impossible to capture the essence of 600 page panorama created by the brilliant author. ‘A Fine Balance’ has elevated Mistry’s stature in my eyes and I am desperate to read another of his creation. Indeed, an outstanding novel!


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