At the bottom of page 511  of Rohinton Mistry’s novel “A Fine Balance”, one can read the sentence: “the lives of the poor are rich with symbols”. One might just as well say: the book of the poor, not forgetting the fact that the book is indeed about the poor, who remain poor throughout, even if their lives is made richer by symbols. But this 600 page volume enriches us with more than symbols; this is what I would like to speak about.
The story would be very long to tell in detail, but here it is in the broad outlines: 4 people from varying origins converge in a Mumbai flat in the mid-70s, and learn to live together and appreciate one another: Dina Dalal, a head-strong, middle-class widow who has rebelled against her comfortable milieu, is fiercely independent and does not wish to be included in her brother’s circle of affluent friends. Her brother is the only family she has left. She depends on him in times of worry, but has started a life of her own as an independent employer of tailors whom she has hired to make clothes for an exporting company.
The two tailors, an uncle and his nephew, come from the lowly caste of chamaars, or tanners, leather workers. A despicable and impure status, under the caste system, which the uncle’s father has transgressed by making his sons go the neighbouring town and train as tailors. Events linked to this transgression, and the inevitable resentment it has created among jealous representatives of higher castes, has led to the shameful destruction of their family and has sent Ishvar and Omprakash (Om) to the city to find work. This is how they get employed by Dina.
The last character is a young student of 17, Maneck Kohlah, who comes to Mumbai to pursue his studies and is looking for lodgings away from the hostel where he was first sheltered but where he has been bullied by other students. He’s from the mountains up North, his parents own a village shop there and are counting on him to look after the shop when they stop working. He’s their only son, and Dina is related to some of their family in the city. So he knocks on her door one day, and meets also the two tailors.
The book tells of the hard life the four of them lead, how they slowly learn to know about one another, once the prejudices are proven not only wrong but sometimes destructive, once the crust of appearances and false assumptions breaks thanks to shared hardships, once they can move beyond the brazen law of mistrust which is that of the oppressor and oppressed, in a society where everything is corrupted by the all-powerful God Money. At first the tailors (who have been looking for work for a long time) are in a position of obedient workers, but then they soon resent being paid too little, especially young Om, who resists what he believes is exploitation. On the other hand, Dina insists on distances being kept between herself and Maneck on the one side, and the tailors on the other. She soon complains about their lack of collaboration, but has no choice: she is stuck between her tailors’ grumpiness (the uncle is too soft-hearted not to side with his nephew a little) and the deadlines of the export company for whom she makes them work. Maneck is adapting to the new life in the city, rather lost at having been sent away from his beloved mountains, and when he starts befriending Om, the young tailor, he gets scolded by Dina who cautions him against such connections.
More events take place, which originate from the tailors’ poverty and will precipitate their destiny. They live in one of the city’s jhopadpattis, a slum made of shacks and rubbish, situated on the city’s railway outskirts, where hordes of poor people share a leaky roof and flimsy walls and where more oppression is to be found, that of the slumlords, of the rent collectors, of “facilitators”, parasites who live off the ignorance and general lack of means. All these poor survive thanks to carefully calculated systems of expedients. One day, after obscure political events involving the Prime Minister, the state decrees Emergency, and the fragile balance of laws and tolerated unlawfulness is shattered. Emergency allows the state to lawfully reorganise the lives and rights of the population, especially of course the part which can’t buy its right to exemption. One of these absurd programs, called “beautification” involves the pure and simple bulldozing of the slum where Ishvar and Om live. In a matter of hours, they are homeless, and have to shelter under a porch before the police picks them up and trucks them away to an irrigation project, miles from the city, leaving an ignorant Dina to pester that her tailors are unreliable and worrying about her future. The irrigation project is a forced labour camp, where the beggars are a cheap but derelict workforce, and the tailors owe their survival to a new character, Beggarmaster, who comes to the camp to buy back the beggars that the authorities had cleaned the streets from. The tailors explain they have jobs, that their presence is a mistake, and he grudgingly accepts to truck them back, on one condition: they will become chained to him by the obligation to pay him the equivalent of three days’ work at Dina’s during one year.
More twists and turns occur, some good, some bad, one of good ones being that Beggarmaster changes from tyrant to saviour. When the rent “goondas” come to evict Dina (and her tenants) from her flat, on grounds that she is using the flat professionally, they start breaking everything and mentally torturing the four inhabitants with Nazi-like ruthlessness. Dina’s business and the tailors’ work are hopelessly lost. Then Beggarmaster comes, to collect his rent, and upon seeing the chaos, promises to “pay a visit” to Dina’s tenant, and miraculously tilts their broken world back on balance. How has this miracle been possible? Ishvar and Om at the camp have befriended a beggar called Worm, or Shankar, who has no legs and no fingers, but stupefies everyone thanks to his energy and good-will. Back in their Mumbai district, they remain his protectors, and even caste-conscious Dina agrees to make him a special garment. And Beggarmaster, who rules his begging business (in which Worm is very profitable) according to his own laws, has now a debt towards the tailors and they have benefited from his powerful protection.
So Mistry’s novel shows a society where individualistic values are possible if and only if you are rich or powerful enough to indulge in them. If not, you are at the mercy of feudal lords which use you at their advantage, and whether or not what they do is against the democratic laws is pointless. Money makes the laws, pays the police, performs whatever those in power have decided. Only a limited amount of solidarity can find its way through to build a more human type of relationships. We see beautiful figures pass us on their way to their destiny, but unless these men, women or children have the proper supports, they are ultimately doomed. The huge Wheel of personal or bureaucratic self-interests crunches along, monstrously slicing into the little constructions that the poor have set up to have a chance at something decent and pleasurable in life. The only salvation is to jump into one of the wheels, but then you might end up rolling over former friends, and if you jump out to save them, you know you too have decreed your own undoing.
The title “A fine balance” thus refers to that extremely fragile situation of the poor who have temporarily managed to secure for themselves a little niche in the ever dangerous and destructive Indian urban society of today. They have been lucky enough, or intelligent enough to find a loophole in the relentless economic system of giving and taking, and have taken advantage of it for the time it will last, until something happens to blow their straw house to smithereens, and they must rush to another shelter, if there is such a shelter. Otherwise the greedy wolf – the institutionalised apetites of the rich and powerful - will gulp them up. The caste system is a very efficient way of providing for those above with a ready means to continue to benefit from the advantages they have always had: food, health, comfort, security, education, hygiene. Those in the lower castes do not have a right to all these amenities. Why? Because they are in their lower caste. It’s as simple as that. The order of the world (its dharma) dictates it. If one low-caste individual breaks that order, any form of jealous retaliation, any punishment, however brutal cruel or inhuman, is considered a god-sent balancing of the eternal order of things. Whoever upsets that balance understands he faces a terrible Kaliyug-like frown an all-powerful Destiny. I won’t disclose what shape this divine retaliation takes at the end of the book, but it left me shuddering and tearful. And I wonder: to what movement of history, what combination of social, political and cultural factors do I owe the peace and justice that is mine in France today? How come I can breathe and eat, work and love without being afraid, while so many people in the world are deprived of that luxury? What is the normal state of humanity? Is it hunger and strife? Or peace and plenty? Are places like India the norm, and places like Europe the exception? Why has development gone faster in one area than in another? How many more thousands, tens, hundreds of thousands will have to be the victims of this march towards a decent life for all? And is such a future likely one day?
There is an extensive reflection on time in the novel; obviously for Mistry it is one of his main themes. The characters always refer to their past, muses Maneck in this passage:
“How much Dina Aunty relished her memories. Mummy and Daddy were the same, talking about their yesterdays and smiling in that sad-happy way while selecting each picture, each frame from the past, examining it lovingly, before it vanished again in the mist. But 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. So what was the point of possessing memory? It didn’t help anything. In the end it was all hopeless (…) No amount of remembering happy days, no amount of yearning or nostalgia could change a thing about the misery and suffering – love and concern and caring and sharing come to nothing, nothing. Maneck began to weep, his chest heaving as he laboured to keep silent. Everything ended badly. And memory only made it worse, tormenting and taunting. Unless. Unless you lost your mind. Or committed suicide. The slate wiped clean. No more remembering, no more suffering.” (p. 336)
Throughout the tailoring years, Dina is seen to keep squares of castaway material and sew them into a quilt, and one often is made to notice how the quilt grows to incorporate the events that are connected to the squares which are sewn together. Towards the end of the novel, the inhabitants pore over it and reminisce their happy or sad times that are spread in front of them, so to speak, and what they unanimously say is: how beautiful, how harmonious, how well the colours and materials have been chosen to match one another and form a unity of impression. So the question is: if the quilt represents the balance of fortunate and unfortunate events which have marked the life of the four main characters of the novel, if it represents their life together, mustn’t we deduct that happiness comes from togetherness, and unhappiness from solitude? And indeed, it is Ishvar and Om, in spite of their tragic destiny, manage to continue to give meaning to this life of suffering. They are the ones that keep alive in Dina the little flame of meaning shining in the night of this absurd world. Without friendship, seems to say Rohington Mistry, without that love,
“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more;
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, V, 5)
So time acquires meaning only if it is quilt-like. That is to say, only if one person’s memories are part of another person’s. Only then does it have a pattern. It’s the “fine” of the title, which also means beautiful, remarkable. That “fine balance to be maintained between hope and despair” (says Vasantrao Valmik, an enigmatic lawyer who is present three times in the story, and has a highly symbolical value as proof-reader and speech-writer) is what remains possible if one can cling on to another to avoid falling. Shankar could cling onto Beggarmaster, Dina to Rustom’s memory (her dead husband), Monkey-man to his monkeys, and then his children – but he becomes mad when they are taken away from him. Rajaram the hair-collector is also more or less driven to a form of madness through dispossession.
In A fine Balance, there is a kindness at work, a benevolence, a compassion in spite of the rushing roar of meaninglessness. It is first exemplified in the magnificent character of Ishvar, the tailor Uncle who always tries to mend, to sew together, to iron out differences and potential conflicts. He is the first to excuse, the last to complain. He’s always open to finding a solution, and almost never despairs. He is Hope. Then, in spite of his longing and aimlessness, Maneck is also a soother of pains. His good-natured charm is part of the story’s pleasure. At one time, for example, when the tailors are missing once again, he manages to drive Dina out of despair and trouble by deciding that for three days he doesn’t have any classes, and is going to help her sew the batch of dresses in time for her to meet the deadline. They work day and night, and he does it out of benevolence, or companionship. The hint of an affair between them never materialises, and soon disappears. By the way, there is no romance in the novel (apart for Dina’s quick meeting with Rustom), an amazing feat for such a long book. Now this benevolence is perhaps one of the novel’s most cherishable charms. We follow the stories of the characters because they are deeply human, in the sense of kind-hearted. Even the “sour-lime” Omprakash has a good enough heart. One easily sympathises with his good-humoured pranks, his freedom, his lively and youthful rebelliousness. And Dina, under her prim and proper principles has also a yearning heart, a soft and generous nature which slowly grows and then blooms at the end. We have also loving characters such as Ashraf Chacha, the splendidly generous muslim tailor who apprentices the two chamaar boys in spite of having a grudging wife and a family to feed, then there’s the compassionate Rajaram who welcomes and helps the tailors when they arrive in the slum.
All this kindness is contrasted with the cruelty, violence and absurdity of both people and administration. Mistry has masterfully depicted the crushing forces of destruction that wreak havoc wherever power is joined to indifference or (worse) hatred (often based on caste difference). One often has the feeling he’s known all this, it’s so unbearable. While I read, I couldn’t help thinking about other accounts of torture, humiliations, violence of all sorts which satisfied executioners inflict on their defenceless victims. The Nazi camps and their horror, the pitch-dark night of Apartheid, the Soviet gulag prisons, the Khmer fury all came to mind. It’s incredible how, without any planned genocidal intentions, the same sort of mutilating frenzy can exist in humanity. People say: never would beasts behave like that. In India’s slums and governmental projects, abject inhumanity has raged and maimed and defiled innocent beings, often with the blessing of those in power, and the ignorant (and superstitious) acceptance of the victims themselves. This monstrosity exists, and aims not only the body, but also at the mind, the honour, the dignity of human beings, and if certain people still hope that evil is never 100% evil, that there always remain that 1% of humanity in all of God’s children, well, I think Rohinton Mistry’s experience is that no, in some torn beings, there is no more divine spark, therefore no more humanity. Only beastliness.
Looking for references as I was slowly walking through the story, I was reminded of Dickens, and perhaps Balzac. First there is the sheer length of the story, the number of its characters, the variety of situations, the urban setting (cities often accentuate drama), the miracles and disasters, the sense of destinies reunited, and then torn apart, the general pattern unfolding before you, with its symbolism and creativity. Dickens is an optimist, Balzac an analyst. What is Mistry? I don’t know his other books, but I’d be tempted to say a pessimist, in spite of all the beauty and simplicity brought forward, or perhaps because of them. So much purity destroyed… There is, as far as I can sense it, no redemption in A fine Balance. In Dickens’ novels on the other hand, there is an ultimate meaning beyond the pale, all suffering is not in vain, and injustice will finally be punished. In Balzac’s works, an underlying democratic movement, and freedom-creating revolutionary forces are there to guarantee the future of the nation. But I’m not sure what saves India in Mistry’s eyes. The fine balance of hope and despair seems to me too fragile to ensure any lasting salvation. What can be said is that it’s at least a balance, however precarious. Kindness and loving humour balance the forces of indifference and craziness. In the face of monstrous tyrants, half-hidden behind a street porch, a little tailor is laughing benevolently, and sewing clothes for his neighbour.
A Fine Balance would make a majestic movie, even if the director would probably have to cut here and there, and select only certain parts of the story. While I was reading, I had the gentle features of Alok Nath in mind. He was my Ishvar. Deepti Naval would be a great Dina, and I’m sure the two younger ones wouldn’t be hard to find. And for those who have seen Dharavi or the recent Amu, well the background is all too real.
Fot those interested, you might like to have a look at another review of Rohinton Mistry's works on this blog: Family Matters .
 I will be quoting from the Faber & Faber paperback edition of 2006.