A review of A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry.

It is hard to work out whether this fine book by Rohinton Mistry is fiction or non-fiction. It is a compelling commentary on the final years of Indira Gandhi’s controversial leadership of India when she declared the “Emergency” in an attempt to control her political opponents and stay in power. Although she is never directly named, the descriptions and context make it very clear. Similarly, the “city by the sea” is obviously Bombay (now Mumbai), where Mistry was born, and described in nostalgic detail.

The “Emergency” gave unprecedented powers to the police, bureaucracy and underworld gangs, and it was a time of great uncertainty for the underclasses. This is a book about the unrelenting suffering of those without power: the untouchables, beggars, the disabled, as well as widows and orphans.

It is a book about political decisions that are hastily made and pathetically implemented: “beautification” projects that render slum dwellers homeless, reducing unemployment by turning the unemployed into bondslaves, and rendering young men and women infertile to meet targets in a “family planning” program.

It is also a book about friendship, family bonds, and enduring hope.

All this is conveyed through four people: feisty Dina, a widow determined to survive by her own wits and talents in a society where single women have little influence; Maneck, son of loving shopkeepers who have sent him to the city to learn a new trade; and the dignified tailor Ishvar and his conceited nephew Omprakash.

These four meet in unlikely circumstances, and eventually form strong friendships in spite of caste and class and gender distinctions. They support each other through circumstances that would sicken or horrify us; or would simply be unimaginable in Australia.

It ends up being a harrowing and very sad read, and yet the resilience of the characters continues to sustain and reward the reader. There are no Hollywood outcomes here; just sheer guts and determination to cling to life, and make the most of what one has. In the end it is dominated by a fatalistic viewpoint: what you have is what the gods have determined for you, therefore accept and exist.

At 600 pages and an intricate and mesmerising read, with the lives of even minor characters intersecting at unexpected moments, this novel is a wonderful achievement, and deserved its shortlisting for the prestigious Booker Prize.

This was my second time reading, and coincidentally, I also went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the same weekend. The distinction between the two “Indias” was devastating: one from the perspective of privileged selfish western eyes, the other through the eyes of an Indian poet. One focusing on the exotic colour of tourist India, the other delving into the ugly underbelly.

Compared to the shallow stories of the English parasites, the rich interweaving of the lives of Mistry’s characters gives a far richer presentation of Indian history, life and culture. Dina hopes that God is great and just, but in the face of such suffering is attacked by doubt. Maneck sees God as a giant quiltmaker, with an infinite variety of designs, but the pattern has become so confused He has abandoned his work. Ishvar also recognises that it “all looks like meaningless bits and rags”, till you piece it together. Mistry shows the outcome of such differing understandings of God, and the resulting sense of purpose.

The fine balance Mistry tries to maintain in his writing is that between bleakness and hope. Some say the balance tips in the final chapters. However, as readers we need to remember that many of the characters look beyond this life.

As Christians living in a wonderful country with sensational health services, with the hope of new life and resurrection, we should have the balance firmly tipped away from a bleak outlook. We should also be even more focused on helping the powerless, the disabled, widows and orphans.