Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

I bought this book many months ago. My good friend Naresh Raghvan strongly recommended it a few years ago and I went ahead and bought it. The book had touched him deeply he said. I was a bit daunted by the size of the book, 614 pages, and kept postponing reading it until the other day. But once I started reading, it was easy to understand why Rohinton Mistry is such a highly regarded Indian writer who ends up being nominated in the Booker race every time he writes.
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry, Faber and Faber, Rs. 295, 614 pages

The book opens inside a train compartment in a city (one can assume that it is Bombay) at the time the Emergency was imposed, circa 1975. Two tailors, Ishvar Darji and Om Prakash Darji, uncle and nephew, are traveling to meet a potential employer, a Parsi lady. They bump into a young student Maneck Kohlah, who is also heading to meet the same lady, to check out his paying guest accommodation. The three hit it off well, the two tailors being polite and funny, Maneck, friendly and open. They meet Dina Dalal, or Dina Bai, a fortyish, beautiful, widowed Parsi lady who needs tailors to sew clothes for an export order and a paying guest, so she earns money to meet her rent and expenses. While telling the story of these four, Rohinton Mistry lays bare India's misery and joy, politics and relationships, justice and hypocrisy, pain and pleasure through some amazing characters who come and go, incidents that are too fantastic to be fiction - they have to be real. All the flavours and stench that India must have emitted in those years, and continues to do so today, are captured through the lives of these four and those who they encounter.

So we realise that Ishvar Darji and Omprakash Darji are not darjis at all. They are cobblers by birth, or chamaars as they are called. To tell their story Mistry takes us to the time of Ishvar's father Dukhi's time, sometime after independence. The chamaars are untouchables, and their sufferings are told with great detail and sympathy. Separate living quarters, cannot draw water from the well, cannot pray in the temple and so on and on. Dukhi is a man with spirit and after having suffered much, does not want his two sons Narayan and Ishvar to suffer the same fate as he and his other friends and he sends them to a town to a tailor to learn how to sew. The tailor is a Muslim, Ashraf, who teaches the young students and they learn the craft well and become family to Ashraf and his wife. When they come to the village, there is much celebration that someone has broken the trodden path and stepped outside. The higher castes do not approve, but not until the time a straight forward Narayan gets into an argument after his marriage, does the wrath of the higher castes unleash. Narayan insists on voting in the elections (and not merely putting his fingerprints as all lower castes do in the village) and Thakaur Dharamsi has him and his two friends killed in the most gory manner and burned inside their hut - Dukhi, his wife, Narayan and his wife and their girl child. Om Prakash, Narayan's son survives as he is away with his uncle Ishvar at Ashraf chaha's house. And they remain there after their tragedy, merging with their Muslim benefactors, and even saving the Muslim family from Hindu-Muslim riots. The Muslim tailor family and the Hindu apprentices become one family, bound by deep gratitude for one another - the Muslims to the Hindus for saving their lives and the Hindus to the Muslims for teaching them a livelihood and treating them as humans, something that their Hindu brothers did not.

The advent of ready made clothes makes work difficult to get by and the two tailors go to the city in search of work. There they sleep on the roads, find a slum, meet all kinds of characters in the slum - the hair collector Rajaram, the Monkey man and his monkeys - learn how to defecate near the train tracks, go hungry, learn to share, and finally find work with Dinabai. There they are pleased to meet Maneck, the son of Dina's schoolmate Aban, who lives in the mountains (Shimla, Mussoorie, take your pick) with his parents who own a general store. Maneck feels deserted because his parents have sent him away when all he wants is to be with them. And all they want is that he get a good life so they sacrifice their time with him. Maneck finds the ragging in college hostels unbearable, meets a friend Avinash who is a students union leader and who disappears one day, and lands up at Dinabai's house. Dina does not like her friend's son mingling with the tailors. The tailors work hard but the younger one thinks Dina is not paying enough. Dina is doing everything to survive on her own without asking her brother for help - hiding the fact from her landlord that she has a paying guest and workers at home - reason enough for the landlord to evict her. But her landlord finds out and sends her notice for eviction.

Meanwhile the tailor's slum is razed as part of the city beautification program. Dina bai does not let the two tailors into her house, not comprehending their propensity to find themselves at the receiving end of the worst things that fate can throw at them. They sleep on the pavement and are herded away by the police to work in an irrigation project along with all the other beggars. With great difficulty they survive the hardships of hard labour, bribe an agent, the Beggarmaster, and the brother of their dear legless beggar friend Shankar, and get out of the project site. Dinabai is horrified at her tailor's state when they come back to her house almost dead, and lets them into her house. And so begin some of the finest days for the four as they hide like fugitives in their own country - Dina from her landlord, the tailors from the police and Maneck from reality. Beggarmaster settles the deal with Dina's landlord who has sent goondas to threaten Dinabai, and beats them up. For a few days all is well with all of them living like a family, cooking eating, helping one another, joking, until Ishvar gets the urge to marry his nephew and goes to his village. Maneck goes home for a vacation.

The tailors go to their town, Ashraf's chacha's town to meet the families of chamaar girls for Om Prakash. There they encounter the same landlord Thakur Dharamsi who is now in charge of the family planning department and you dread, fearing the worst. Om Prakash displays his father's famous spirit and he spits on the road when he spots Dharamsi - the landlord looks at him and says 'I know you'. And you want the two tailors to leave everything and run back to the city. But they don't - we have done noting wrong - they say. But it is not so much about doing nothing wrong, it is about their naivete, their helplessness, their hope, their politeness.

Then Mistry unleashes a rare fury as he piles on misery upon misery on the tailors, being as truthful as he can, promising no happy endings. I got angry, felt betrayed as Mistry changed course from what seemed a happy ending for the tailors and set course with Dharamsi and his horde of doctors, police and the family planning brigade which picks up people from the road in garbage trucks and has them undergo family planning operations. Mistry kills and maims the wonderful characters he has created with abandon - one has an accident in the city as he runs away from the fear of police, one stabbed by someone he thinks he has helped, one loses legs in a family planning gone wrong, one is castrated by a vengeful upper caste, one who goes mad at losing his little niece and nephew, one who turns up by the train tracks. And when you find hope seeping out of you almost completely, Mistry allows but one ray of hope at the end. The system can take away everything but it cannot take away your spirit, your laughter.

Mistry is unforgiving of the country and its policies, its cultural and religious hypocrisy, its practices, its almost useless systems, its governance, its Prime Minister and almost everything. And you can see the fragile lives of the two tailors who are polite, delicate, sensitive, going about trying to make an honest living despite all the odds, the life of Dinabai as she tried to stand on her own and Maneck as he fails to come to grip with life. Life as untouchables, slum dwellers, police excesses, people in power, higher castes, senior students, government hospitals, officers, forced vasectomies, slum clearances, courts, communal riots, religious bigotry - there is almost nothing that Mistry has left untouched. And through all that muck, you see these four lives, pure and simple, merely wanting to get on with their lives honestly but not understanding that perhaps it might not be as simple as that. Mistry brings everything into the ambit of the book, the outside which appears so harsh and heartless, and the inside where all humans operate at a human level, fighting their own insecurities and fears.

It was incredibly funny at times and Rajaram, the Ukridge like hair-collecting character turning into a family planning motivator (Masterwaiter, masterwaiter!) made me fall off the chair. And so many more times as well. Ishvar and OmPrakash join the elite gang of my favourite characters in books, in the high positions alongside Tam and Richie from "Restraint of the Beasts" (Magnus Mills). I love the subtle undercurrent that always makes me laugh when two men are together. I find it the most funny situation in the world. But its the way the two tailors cope with life as it strikes them down again and again that wrings the heart out of you, that makes you want to plead with Mistry to let them off and give them a better life. When they get the shelter and food and love from the other two, Dina and Maneck, you hope that Mistry spares them. I got angry as the book drew to a close and Mistry spared no one, as hope started to leave, angry that I had wasted my time, that I had been betrayed after reading 600 pages. But then it is not Mistry you can get angry about - he has written a wonderful tale - I suspect not everyone can digest it. He points out our society and country and its failings and its strengths so clearly that sometimes one cannot take it. In my craving for a happy ending I almost forgot that sometimes, some lives do not get happy endings. But they are still happy. Nothing can conquer their spirits.

Some books change you as a person and this one certainly falls into that category, especially for all Indians who have not been privileged to see and hear tales of the Emergency, of untouchability, of communal riots, of governments, of what went on and goes on, in the hearts of some of our fellow countrymen. But now I know what Mistry is capable of, and I will not touch his next book until I have recovered sufficiently. For those who appreciate this book for its fiction, I must ask them to think again because it is too fantastic to be in the realms of fiction. It is factual - surely a run through some pages of newspapers would tell us that Mistry had spared us many more injustices that would have made our blood boil. But to layer it in this fashion, to tell this fantastic story sitting on the shoulders of the two loveable tailors, Rohinton Mistry, take a bow. I have not learnt as much of our country and what it has gone through in any other movie, documentary or book as I have in this.

I have always been a fan of Mistry despite not reading his books. He called off his book tour in the USA after the country became paranoid after 9/11 and harassed everyone at the airports. Mistry and his wife were stopped and searched at every airport until Mistry realised that his appearance, beard and all, was more the reason and not the 'random' check as the clerks told him. I loved that. His 'Such a long journey' (banned by the Shiv Sena scion Aditya Thackeray from the Mumbai University syllabus for being anti-Marathi not too long ago, as a helpless Mumbai University administration wilted and agreed to please him instantly) is on my list as is 'Family Matters'. Among the current lot of Indian writers Mistry stands in a unique place because of his layered style of telling a story, of telling us where we come from. A purposeful manner of telling the story. A way of taking you through the experience so it touches you. Even if you have preserved yourself and insulated yourself from it all these years, it will. You cannot avoid it.
If you can, and only if you can, pick it up and read this fantastic novel.

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