Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance

Those who continue to harp on the inevitable decline of the novel ought to hold off for a while. The unique task of the genre, after all, is truthfulness to human experience in all its variety, and thanks to the great migrations of population in our time, human variety is to be found in replenished abundance all around us. The displacements, comminglings and clashings of peoples and cultures have released new energies, strange pollens; indeed, the harvest has barely begun.
Consider Rohinton Mistry, a Parsi, born in Bombay in 1952, who has lived in Canada since 1975. His first book was a widely praised collection of stories, "Swimming Lessons and Other Stories From Firozsha Baag." It was followed by the novel "Such a Long Journey," which received the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book of 1991. His third book, "A Fine Balance," defies easy categorization. Calling it a domestic novel would not be altogether amiss, provided one added: a domestic novel that refuses to remain within walls.
Set in 1975 in an unidentified Indian city, it opens quietly and builds slowly, starting with a simple, centripetal narrative premise. Mrs. Dina Dalal, a financially pressed Parsi widow in her early 40's, is determined to keep her independence, resisting the options of remarriage or a return to the bullying charity of her brother's household. To make ends meet, Dina takes in a paying boarder, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a Parsi school chum, and hires two Hindu tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, to sew dresses for an export company. At first she sets the tailors to work under sweatshop conditions. The author charts the transformation of an empty apartment into a home full to bursting, and the binding of mismatched strangers into a communion as close as family.
Each of the four main characters is a refugee from one thing or another. Dina seeks to escape from the suffocating strictures imposed upon respectable, single, aging women. Maneck, the paying boarder, has been sent down from the hill country to attend college. His beloved mountain village in its majestic natural setting has been scarred by road construction and electrification projects, its forests depopulated. Seeking an education in step with the times, Maneck is studying for a diploma in refrigeration and air conditioning, for entry into "an industry that would grow with the nation's prosperity."
The tailors, Ishvar and Om, have been fleeing all their lives; they are refugees from caste and communal violence and, finally, from the institutional violence of Indira Gandhi's emergency rule. Om, just 17, is the son of Ishvar's murdered brother, and Ishvar, in his 40's, who has never married, has dedicated his life to being father-protector to his nephew. Their histories are joined in unending misfortune. Living from hand to mouth (even their sewing machines are rented), entirely at the mercy of the social upheavals of the hour, they are subject to periodic sweeps of the city to provide crowds for political rallies and conscripted manual labor for civic beautification schemes. Each time they are beaten down, they have to pick themselves up and start over. This happens again and again.
Under these circumstances, Dina's apartment becomes a haven for the tailors. The four strangers start sharing their stories, then meals, then living space, until, over the divides of caste, class and religion, the ties of human kinship prevail. In this one shabby little apartment, at least, the human family becomes more than a phrase, a metaphor, a piety. The author takes his own sweet time here, as well he should. I balked at the slowness at first, but just when I'd started to mutter "This really is much too sweet!" and "What are the odds of such harmony coming to be under such conditions?" and "I only wish. . . ." the downslope began, a veritable avalanche of catastrophe ensued, and I keenly regretted my reluctance to bask in the brief patch of sunshine Mr. Mistry had provided.
What follows is a double misfortune of catastrophic event and narrative stance, because from here on it feels as if some invisible but essential substance -- like air or love -- that has hitherto flowed unstintingly from author to character has been siphoned off, leaving the dry machinations of plot design in its stead. This withdrawal is especially disconcerting where Dina and Ishvar are concerned.
Since decency is often drab, dogged and undramatic (or at least not obviously dramatic), Dina and Ishvar are people of a kind rarely found in fiction today. And here they are, moving, breathing, fully dimensional figures -- placed at the very center of the novel. All the more disappointing, then, to find myself losing touch with them, except for a few external landmarks passed during the final eight-year stretch of the narrative, which encompasses only a few chapters. I for one wanted news of their interior journeys as well.
At book's end, I returned to ponder the title, "A Fine Balance," because my sense of imbalance -- of despair over hope, of sustained moral injury beyond reach of remedy -- was keen. Perhaps this residual imbalance is due in part to a conflict between Mr. Mistry's political and literary aims. Certainly the indictment of Mrs. Gandhi's regime served up in these pages could not be more trenchantly clear. 


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