Monday, 5 January 2015

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

*Some Spoilers Below *

This is a difficult book to read, but despite its size, it would be a mistake to call it sprawling. Instead of taking in a vast cavalcade of characters, it shows the impact of The Emergency in India on not many, but on a few. Four, in particular. Although they know other people, it is through these four that we see how the state intruded brutally into the lives of its citizens, and how the vulnerable were, of course, the most vulnerable, while the powerful refused to believe that abuses were going on, preferring to blame the poor for their own fates.

This focus, sustained over such a long book, makes for an emotional read. The title of the book refers to a line one character speaks about a fine balance between hope and despair. Given what the characters undergo, it is apparent how easy it is to tip the scales towards despair.

We see The Emergency in India through four characters. One, Dina, is a widow trying to eke out an independent life so she doesn't have to be, more or less, a servant in her brother's house. To do so, she tries to set herself up as a middle woman for sewing piecework. Of course, her landlord wants to get rid of her so he can raise the rent, and having a workplace in the apartment is illegal. But she is desperate enough to try it anyway.

To do the actual sewing, since her eyes are failing, she hires two tailors. Ishvar and Omprakash, uncle and nephew, were born into an even lower caste, but Ishvar's father was one of the first to dare to have his son apprentice to a higher-status position. This does not go over well in the village. Ishvar and Omprakash moved to the big city after their work with a tailor and friend had dried up due to ready-to-wear fashion. They have trouble finding a place to stay, and once they have work with Dina, Omprakash, in particular, resents Dina's cut of the money for the work they do.

Dina's other money-making plan is to take in a boarder, a student studying air conditioning repair. From a slightly higher-status background, Maneck runs into The Emergency initially through the hostel where he lives, where he befriends a budding revolutionary who disappears after staging numerous demonstrations.

Ishvar and Omprakash take the most direct brunt of the increasing crackdowns, first in a shantytown, then sleeping on the streets. Some of the sections involving these two are truly harrowing. So far, this all sounds like despair. The hope comes in in the small flashes of family the four characters manage to create, sharing space and work and stories. That sounds lighter than it is - the stories are difficult, the work difficult, the life hard. But hope persists.

For some, anyway. Others find it slipping away. Still others manage to maintain it, even through truly horrific circumstances. The ending reminds me of Anna Karenina, and I'm hoping that's not too much of a spoiler, as one character succumbs to despair. The others forge on.

I feel like I haven't gotten the heft of this book across. Through the focus on a few, with a world that seems set against them, sometimes it was hard to take a breath, in sympathy with the constraints that continued to tighten around them. It's easy to feel the despair. It's harder to feel the hope. The balance tips. But not for everyone.

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