Rohinton Mistry’s 1996 novel is prefaced with a quotation by Balzac:
‘Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction All is true.’
At over 600 pages, there is a lot of tragedy packed into ‘A Fine Balance’. It is set in India’s ‘State of International Emergency’ in the 1970s. From caste violence to enforced sterilisation, from police brutality to the professional mutilation of beggars, Mistry presents a mosaic of human misery and torment. Now I’m not a masochist (or a sadist) so these facts about the novel taken on their own would not encourage me to read or recommend it. What makes the story work as literature as well as historical record is the command the author holds over his material, structure and characterisation working together to weave a compelling narrative from a mass of unwieldy historical events.
The four main characters, a widow, a student and two struggling tailors, experience the confusion of the times in different ways, each desperately trying to keep hold of their independence, dignity and humanity. Three of them are outsiders, new to the sprawling city that is the crucible for most of the novel’s main events. Meanwhile the city-born Dina is a widow attempting to carve out her own independence; it soon becomes apparent that her place within the patriarchal and turbulent city is scarcely more secure than the newcomers’. The characters bounce from crisis to crisis, their confusion echoed in the chaos around them:
‘“With the Emergency, everything is upside down Black can be made white, day turned into night. With the right influence and a little cash, sending people to jail is very easy. There’s even a new law called MISA to simplify the whole procedure.”
“Maintenance of … something, and Security … something. I’m not sure.”‘
If anything can temper the terrible facts depicted throughout, it’s Mistry’s wry and sensitive writing. There is humour alongside the horror, and enough comforting hints at less traumatic forms of fiction (the picaresque and the great realist novels of the nineteenth century) to balance out the horror – pun fully intended.
I highly recommend ‘A Fine Balance.’ It has taught me about a new period of world history; it has introduced me to wonderful new characters. It has also reminded me of how novels can be perfect vehicles for carrying important information about our past and our values. What holds the book together is the hope and companionship found by characters in the unlikeliest places. The story explores not only the depths of human behaviour, but also the power of friendship and openness. It has fully earned its place in Anglo-Indian literature and is of enduring relevance today as we face our own ‘upside down’ world and future.