Socialist View, No. 15, Spring 2006
A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
Reviewed by Helen Redwood
MISTRY'S BOOK is primarily set during the State of Emergency declared by Indira Ghandi in India, 1975, to curtail a growing and widespread movement for civil and land rights. The reader is, however, taken back for a brief time to the 1950s, and the vicious inter-communal violence that erupted between Hindus and Muslims around the time of partition. India is generally presented as the world's largest succesful democracy, but through his up-close inspection of individual lives, the emerging picture is one of a society permeated by savage repression and corruption. It is a very worthwhile and absorbing read.
The lives of two tailors, Ishvar and Om, give the reader an insight into the brutal realities of the caste system. They come from the 'untouchable', Chamaar, caste and their family fall victim to the worst type of violence, even murder, which upper caste people clearly felt at liberty to perpetrate. At election time, villagers would be herded into the election booths to put their thumbprint on voting papers, which were then collected up and filled in by upper caste leaders. Abolition of the caste system in law made little difference to these villagers. Their story is one of trying to break out of the traditional role of their caste, when their fathers send them off to a Muslim tailor friend to teach them his trade.
Dina Dalal is a Parsi woman who, in another way, is also trying to break away from her traditionally alotted role. In the face of a despotic brother who, as head of the family, denies her an education and tries to marry her off to one of his friends, she struggles to maintain an independent existence. Dina eventually chooses her own husband, but when she is later widowed, she has to learn hairdressing and tailoring skills to get by on her own. We get a glimpse of the stratification of society when she takes in a student lodger, Maneck, who is struck by how poor looking her accommodation is. We also know how precarious are her efforts to maintain a living. Dina has to be sure not to offend Mrs Gupta, the right-wing business woman who provides her with cloth and patterns, which she subcontracts out for making-up to then export to a French fashion house. Mrs Gupta typifies that section of business who supported the State of Emergency, seeing it as bringing and end to "troublesome unions" and restoring order and discipline within society. In contrast, the two Chamaar tailors Dina hires to help her fulfil Mrs Gupta's orders, who are forced to live in a disgusting slum shack, describe Dina as " a rich Parsi woman".
Maneck gives the reader some insight into the world of young people. In college he befriends the leader of the student union, Avanash, who becomes increasingly involved in political action which was sweeping the colleges and society before the crackdown. Employing the 'double-speak' of capitalism, sinister societies given misnomers like "Students Against Fascism" begin to appear as government agents infiltrate the colleges. Eventually, Avanash disappears, as did so many government oppositionists at that time. Maneck, remaining painfully na´ve, refuses to get involved. Only later do we see a dawning politicisation when he is confronted with the rabid elitism and anti-union rantings of the right-wing as represented by Dina Dalal's businessman brother Nusswan.
Each broad section of society is given a voice from the top down, although Mistry's sympathy clearly rests with the most downtrodden. A beggar, Shankar, consigned to the begging industry from birth, and deliberately mutilated during childhood to improve begging potential, is given a humanity not normally attributed to someone who is so brushed aside by society.
The horrors perpetrated under the State of Emergency become focused through the harrowing experiences of these central characters. Bulldozers flatten slum dwellings in the name of the government "Beautification" programme, leaving workers and jobless alike to sleep on the streets. The police sweep through poor communities rounding up these fresh street dwellers alongside the weak and hungry whose homes have been the street for much longer. They then cart them off to do hard labour, their only pay being night shelter and food that's barely recognisable as such. Young and old are rounded up for barbaric forced sterilisation as quotas fail to be reached through bribes and persuasion. Many fell victim to unsterile equipment and operating facilities.
At one point one of the characters does reflect on the possiblities of resisting these atrocities if everyone would only act together, but the book really ends on a note of despair. The last chapter is entitled "The Circle is Completed" - despite the perseverance of people to conquer adversity, events overwhelm them. A Fine Balance is after all a novel, written as a tragedy not a political analysis or a call to action - although if this exposÚ of capitalism in the raw doesn't stir the blood, I don't know what will.
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