Terra Nullius | A Fine Balance

Thoughts after finishing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. 

The older I get, the more I long to read as I did a few years ago. Maybe, I have more distractions now and hence the urgency with which I turned pages, say 7 years ago has dissipated. But once in a while, I chance upon a book so wonderful and deliciously rich in its narrative and plot, that I find people, usual distractions, and pressing priorities, blanched in comparison to what its pages hold. One such book that I came across four days ago was Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance on a friend’s bookshelf. Within two days and three nights of extended reading (an entire day was spent being anti-social at an airport terminal and long bus rides) I finally finished the book and was left wishing I had read it earlier.

Set in post partition India, spanning till 1984, the book is about 4 characters who cannot be more different from the other. Dina Dalal – a Parsi widow with a bright future, who becomes a victim of her own circumstances and spends most of her life fighting them. Ishwar Darzi and Omprakash Darzi – two Chamaar tailors who escape the wretchedness of prejudice against their caste and try to find livelihood in Mumbai. And Manek Kohlah – a sheltered student who ends up as Dina Dalal’s paying guest because of brutal ragging in his hostel at a Mumbai college.

The book traces the period from pre-Partition India, upto 1984, with most of the narrative taking place during the Emergency. The unnamed “Prime Minister” and the State despotism of the age are always omnipresent. For many of us born years later, the Emergency period in India is a blot on its otherwise unblemished democratic record. We have heard of its impact and read about the initiatives. But this book, humanises it and reveals its impact on the lowest common denominator, the ordinary individual, with little to do with politics or power, who is simply trying to survive and get on with her days. Mistry portrays a dystopian country – with aborted rights and freedoms, forced labour camps, razed shantytowns and slums, barbaric beautification programmes, family planning centres, numbered vasectomies and thoughtless amputations – and those who are impacted most by the Emergency. On the peripheries of this, is the rise of religious chauvinism, regional and sectarian sentiments, majoritarian agendas and communal riots.

The one aspect of the book which is the sheer genius on the part of Mistry, is his depiction of the relationship between the four unlikely protagonists, and its soft evolution into an unlikely, often strange friendship. You want each of these characters, soiled in their own misery and in the seediness of their times, to find comfort in each other’s company – and they so often do. I loved the rich backstory of each character, their history, family life and circumstances, explored to describe how they emerge as the people they are. Mistry balances the squalor of the times he portrays, with the humanity of his characters and their relationships. As a character explains “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’, he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance”. The author is also brilliant in narrating the most disturbing scenes of violence and grime without any dramatic effect. He is as casual in his descriptions of the tragedies and ironies of India, as we are in consuming them daily on our television screens and newspaper headlines. There are bits in the book that make the hair at the back of your neck stand, yet these bits last for a mere sentence or two.

Fiction can be rewarding and equally depressing at times. While it can provide one with the illusion of escapism, it can create worlds far more reprehensible than our reality. However, when fiction mirror’s reality so accurately that it becomes hard to distinguish between the two, its impact on each reader is unique. A Fine Balance reminded me of so many books that I have read and loved. There were parts that reminded me of Katherine Boo’s non-fictional Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about the slum dwellers in an aanganwaadi in Dharaavi. Especially bits about the brutality of ordinary daily life for a particular class in India. There were bits that made me think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – especially the way in which it explicitly comments on the politics and ideologies, through the characters and their life. I found myself comparing it to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, in its panoramic depiction of multitudinous Indian identities and diverse perspectives at a particular point in History. And most of all to Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram, in terms of its gritty depiction of Mumbai, replete in its crimes and grime, and in the relationships that form and evolve between otherwise incompatible characters. Like all of these, it depicts the flux between idealism and realism, hope and pessimism and mostly, the unabashed inconsistancy of time. Yet it is markedly distinguishable from each.

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is not among my favourite books. I found its balance tilting towards the depressing. However, it disturbed me in a way few books (especially literary fiction) have. Maybe it’s because it is a book written two decades ago, but with much relevant even today. That much of the distortion portrayed – cruel caste prejudices, religious fragmentation, political decay, fundamentalism, state despotism, poverty, institutional failures – and its impact on individual (and uncounted) lives, still casually exist and throb across the country. That we can so easily and effortlessly descend into chaos, as individuals and populations, if we cross the thin lines drawn to confine us as a civilisation. It is a book that is profound, and needs time and serious thought to be digested. However, after a long time, a piece of ‘fiction’ (and I will emphasise on that to console myself) made me forget everything and everyone around me, and become so involved that sleep became a distraction.