I don’t know much about India beyond what we like to call “common knowledge,” which is as accurate, I suppose, a common sense. A Fine Balance seems to reinforce most of the stereotypes abroad in the world abut that country and, though it possesses some literary merit, seems more intent on cataloguing the horrors of oppression and political incompetence/malevolence than on delving into the souls of its characters. The book jacket describes the tale as “Dickensian,” which it is as far as its exploration of social injustice is concerned; as to the exploration of the true hearts of his characters, Rohinton Mistry still has a lot to learn from the London master. Despite the Oprah stamp of approval, and despite some intriguing aspects of the tale, I could not get enthusiastic about this 600+ page volume that seems longer.
The lengthy tale focuses on four central characters: 1) A city born-and-bred middle class woman named Dina whom we meet as a young girl, trying desperately to free herself from a tyrannical brother whose idea of taking care of her after their parents’ death is to control her every move and thought. 2) a pair of villagers–uncle and nephew–who migrate to the city trying to find a place to ply their tailoring trade after work dries up in the village. 3) A young man from the mountains whose parents send him to the city to school, against his will, to give him life advantages they never had.
Various events pull these four together, pull them apart, put them back together, and so on. What gets tiresome is the unending series of disasters that plagues each of them, dealt out by fate more or less in proportion to their place in society. Their gruesomeness and regularity give the events the comic effect of a series of decapitations in bad horror movies. The nephew’s family is burned to death by the village potentate even before he starts for the city because his older brother insists on his right to vote for himself instead of having the local potentate mark his ballot. Once in the city, they endure hardships finding work and accommodations. Once they overome those, their hovel–built on public land and managed by a self-appointed landlord–is bulldozed in the name of public beautification and civic emergency. (A practice which must still be proceeding, as I read of the hoveldom inhabitated by the Slumdog Millionaire child actor being cleared except for his exact tin-and-tarpaper shack. Ah, Hollywood.) Later, Uncle and Nephew are carted off to a slave labor camp. Later still, the nephew, returned to the village to find a wife, is castrated at the orders of the same potentate that murdered his family. Shortly thereafter, the uncle loses his legs to an infection caused by unsterile instruments used in a vasectomy which the potentate forced upon him in order to line his own pockets with government money being issued for birth control.
In the meantime, our young girl Dina manages to meet a husband NOT chosen by her brother, live with him for three blissful years, then lose him when a lorry crushes his bicycle. From then on it’s hand to mouth and constant threat of eviction, a threat that finally materializes when, at the age of forty-two, she is forced back into her brother’s household, half-blind because apparently no one knows how to make or can afford eyeglasses even though we’re in the mid-1980’s by now.
Our last character, the student from the mountains, Maneck, manages to escape any major calamities, but fails to take advantage of the extraordinary (for this group) opportunities he does have. His only friend at school is eventually killed over politics, but there are no consequences for Maneck. He finishes trade school with low marks, but manages to land a good job in Dubai. He treats his parents like shit despite their kindness to him. He is similarly, though not as acidly, ungrateful to Dina (a friend of his mother’s friend) who houses both him and the tailors during the brief period when their life is relatively good. Despite his not-so-admirable character, fate treats him much kinder than the others, yet he is the one who does an Anna Karenina at the end of the book. Which, I guess, is the point of the novel and the point of the title–Maneck can’t maintain his point of balance.
At every level of this society, folks have their hands out. You pay to sleep in a doorway or on a section of a sidewalk. You pay to get directions. There’s a Fagin-like (shades of Charles D. again) Beggarmaster who organizes panhandlers, for a per centage of the proceeds, of course. Every official is on the take, and, of course, has someone else he or she has to pay off. The government declares random emergencies which can instantly invalidate an entire economic ecosystem of informal pay-for-play arrangements. Justice is rare and seemingly accidental when it occurs.
Adding to the violent problems of our main cast, Mistry gives us a hair collector cum murderer-of-beggars-for-their-hair cum swami; a no-legs-by-birth-defect cart beggar who is flattened by a bus; a street performer named Monkey Man, whose monkey is eaten by his dog, who kills the dog, who abuses his children, and who finally goes nuts and stabs the beggarmaster to death, which is the direct cause of Dina’s eviction.
I suppose you have to admire the surviving spirit of the survivors, and I’m not sorry I took on A Fine Balance. I’m glad for Mistry that Oprah loves him, and I’m glad for him that this book and another were short-liste for the Booker prize. I see also that he’s an Indian immigrant to Canada and now lives in Toronto, and I seem to be zeroing in on the Canadians this year. Despite all that, however, I’m going to once again play contrarian to the literary establishment and will be unlikely to seek out more of mister Mistry’s efforts.