November 21, 2008
I envy people who haven’t read A Fine Balance. Rohinton Mistry, the author, has got this kind of magic, the god-given gift of literature that only a handful of writers, dead or alive, possess.
For those who haven’t read it, the book, published in 1995, tells the struggle of two Untouchables, Omprakash and Maneck, who have left their village and the persecutions endured by their peers to find a better life in Bombay. Their destinies become intertwined with Dina’s, a widow from a relativilegy privileged background, for whom they work. The story is set during the Emergency (1975-1977), a time of great turmoil in India during which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led controversial policies.
The Untouchables’ struggle is nothing new here, quite a redundant topic to be honest. But the way it is depicted in A Fine Balance is brilliantly bereft of pathos hence all the more gripping.
As for Mistry’s take on the Emergency (a brutal and dark period), it is pure genius. He finely sews his opinion (very anti-Indira Gandhi, even though he never mentions her name) into the canvas of the story. It is never a pamphlet, never angry, never patronizing. It is so cleverly done you don’t even notice it. He just needs to tell you how a government helicopter supposed to drop rose petals on a field of (paid) supporters to the Prime Minister accidentally dropped the ballot on a cow and kills it. Mistry drops these lines like as many little bombs.
His brilliance lies in his ability to infuse misery with grace. Omprakash and Maneck’s struggles are truly heartbreaking, full of humiliation, hunger, deaths and betrayal. It never really gets better for them but still, it is written with such amazing grace and knowledge that I never felt suffocated.
Did I like it so much because I live in India and am therefore used to such topics as caste and poverty ?
But I think I liked it so much because one the things I cherish most, one of the principles I will endeavour to live by and one of the qualities I most admire in prose, thoughts and style is : grace. And grace is what Rohinton Mistry, one of the great writers of today, possesses and creates.