Saturday, June 11, 2005

Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance is a fine, fine book! Not only has Rohinton Mistry crafted a whole set of very interesting characters for this book, but also, he brings the horrors of the Emergency period alive. I was only 10 years old or so when the government of India declared a state of emergency in India and I was always aware of the adults talking in hushed tones about horrible things that were happening all around them. I am glad to have finally been able to read about the atrocities that went on during that period---dark and dismal as they no doubt were, it is important to know what went on because history forgotten can be history repeated.

Although this is a work of fiction, it is in some way a documentary covering caste violence, exploitations of the poor, extortion, organized begging, life in city slums, forced sterilisation as a method of population control, Hindu versus Muslim clashes, and a government so corrupt and brutal with the poor it defies words.

Back to the characters---Mistry has chosen to draw a majority of his characters from the lower middle class to the poor of India and in doing so, has shown us what poverty is and what wretched lives of toil and abuse poor people must live and yet they have the endurance to take on the next day. I just felt sorry that after building his characters up so much, he makes them all come undone at the end.

To sum up, this novel is both a commentary on the political and social environment of the time as well as a beautiful tragedy.

A note about the cover: It is a picture taken by Dario Mitidieri and shows a girl being balanced on a pole the other end of which rests on someone's thumb. This is a common feat among Indian street acrobats and can also be seen in some Indian circuses. There is a wonderful scene in Rohinton Mistry's book which describes the performance of one of these street acrobats, aka. Monkey Man. India's street acrobats also perform other daring, dangerous feats. Just to give you a taste, here's a small excerpt from travel writer Margaret Deefholts article "Wallahs".

"Mumbai's street activity runs the gamut from the whimsical to the horrific, and I am catapulted from one to the other without warning. Barely a hundred metres from Laxmibai's cow, I find myself on the perimeter of a small crowd watching a family of ragged street acrobats. The father ties his baby son to a three-metre bamboo pole and while his wife beats a small drum, he walks a rope strung between two portable wooden struts, with the pole balancing on his head. The child dangles five metres above the concrete pavement. The onlookers clap and toss coins into a bowl.

The crowd disperses and the woman discreetly breast-feeds the baby while her husband counts the take. He says something to his wife, and she laughs, smacks his shoulder, and says, "Aarey, hut ja!" ("Get on with you!") He lights a beedi and hunkers down on his haunches, his face expressionless as he stares into the middle distance. The baby wails as the mother draws him away from her breast and lays him on her lap. The father gently strokes the child's head. In another 10 minutes or so, he will once again risk his son's life for a handful of coins."


Pic courtesy: Mary Ellen Mark (1998)