'A Fine Balance,' by Indian-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry, is a story about the changes in Indian society from 1947 to 1997, until the end of the period known as the Emergency; it is also a harsh critique of Indira Gandhi's ruling style and cruelty.
By Nemer Naime
The novel A Fine Balance was published in 1985, but the book tells a story that can be read by anyone who wants to learn about the intricacies of India's ancient caste system, how Indira Gandhi forced millions of people to undergo sterilizations, and how her decisions have affected modern India. The story follows the lives of four normal people that live the turbulent time of The Emergency, when Gandhi imprisoned the parliamentary opposition as well as thousands of students, teachers, trade unionists and journalists. These events, along with the government's forced sterilization campaign change the lives of the four main characters.
This novel, that lately has fallen into obscurity, is the second work of best-selling author Rohinton Mistry, and according to its critics, it's an open window into cruelty, corruption, dignity, and heroism in India.
The story follows the lives of several characters. Widow Dina Dalal, who has lived for decades in poverty and solitude; college student Maneck Kohlah who has left his family behind in the Himalayas to study air conditioning and refrigeration in the city, in a course that his father believes will help him to survive in a world that seems to prefer destroying nature and to favor technology; tailors Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle and nephew, who are a pair of "untouchables," and who have built a life for themselves tanning animal hides.
These characters' lives intertwine and find each other in a turbulent time in Indira Gandhi's cruel Emergency period. The story does a remarkable job of showing the drama that permeated the whole of Indian society: castes, poverty, and above all, an undying survival instinct.
The writer's musical voice writer gives us unforgettable paragraphs, such as: "Nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated - not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.”
The narration weaves their private moments together in Dina’s house with rich stories presented with delightful precision against the frame of India’s history.
The Rohinton Mistry's wonderfully rhythmic shows the intricacies of life in India during this turbulent time. His prose brings to life the inner worlds of secondary characters like the Beggarmaster, the rent-collector, or the lawyer, giving to the reader a tapestry and a snapshot of India in one of its most turbulent times.
Cover photo: @anneksandher
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