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Dignity in the face of oppression

03 August 2018

Richard Harries on Rohinton Mistry’s ‘great but disturbing’ novel A Fine Balance

INDIA can be totally overwhelming in the emotions it arouses in visitors: elation, anger, bewilderment, joy. One effect it always has on me is sheer admiration for the resilience of its people. How so many survive in such conditions with such determination is extraordinary. Rohinton Mistry’s novel is mainly set in 1975-76, when Indira Gandhi took “emergency powers”, the result of which was that the familiar problems of the country — caste, corruption, cruelty, and failed politics — became greatly accentuated.

It is a novel about that resilience: how people endure, and why, despite everything, they mostly struggle on. Mistry was born in Bombay in 1952, and has lived in Canada since 1975. This, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996.

The novel follows four main characters, from very different backgrounds, whose lives become intertwined in misfortune as a result of the pressures of poverty, violence, and social change. Ishvar and Omprakash are from a family of leather workers who, though not outside the caste system altogether, like the Dalits, are also regarded as ritually impure and untouchable. To break away from the caste system they are sent to train as tailors with a Muslim.

In due course, they find themselves working for an impoverished Parsee widow, Dina, who, though impoverished, is determined to keep her independence rather than remarry or return to the domestic servitude of her brother’s house. Lodging in the house is Maneck, from a mountain village where his family’s soft-drink business is failing because of the changes of modern India: an India for which Maneck is educated, but does not really feel at home in.

In the home of Dina, these very different people become something of a family, a tiny candle of shared humanity in a cruel world, but the events of the emergency precipitate them into a series of disasters. Ishvar and Om are rounded up and forcibly sterilised. Ishvar’s wound goes septic, and he has to have his legs amputated.

The novel contains vivid portraits of the rich variety of people all engaged in the business of surviving in India in changing times. One Muslim rent-collector, who used to keep his documents in a leather folder, now has a plastic one, but “he no longer cared. He had learnt that dignity could not be acquired by accoutrements and accessories, it came unasked, it grew from one’s ability to endure.” If he had been asked to wear a coolie’s hat and carry the documents on his head, “he would have complied now without complaint.”

In the background is the failure of the political system. Elections come round, and candidates promise all manner of changes in the law — the same changes that had been promised before. “Someone should remind them they need to apply the laws,” one character remarks, to which he receives the reply: “For politicians, passing laws is like passing water. It all ends down the drain.”

This is a harrowing novel that, more than any other, has churned me up in recent years with a sense of pain and outrage. Particularly difficult to take is the gang master of the beggars, whose creativity is extolled by one of them in the words: “If all beggars have the same injury, public gets used to it and feels no pity. Public likes to see variety. . . Blind beggars are everywhere. But blind, with eyeballs missing, face showing empty sockets, plus nose chopped off — now anyone will give money for that.”

This reality is focused on one beggar, without legs, who is strapped on to a kind of skateboard, and who pushes himself along with his hands, vying and fighting with others for the best space on the pavement.

The title of the novel comes from the words of one character: “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair. . . In the end, it is all a question of balance.” It is not always easy to see what is maintaining their hope, however, or whether the balance in the novel is not tilted to despair.

In the India I have visited, I have always been struck not just by the resilience of people, but their capacity for joy. It is epitomised, for me, by the Oxfam calendar for 1992, still hanging in our bathroom, which pictures two young girls astride buffalos in the village pond, with looks of sheer delight on their faces. It is difficult to see much of that joy in this great but disturbing novel. Perhaps other readers will see more than I did.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His last book The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world is now available in paperback.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-571-23058-7).

The award-winning novelist Rohinton Mistry A FINE BALANCE — SOME QUESTIONS

Om and Ishvar see Dina as rich, but Maneck is shocked at her small, shabby flat. Does poverty depend on perspective?

Maneck says of the Beggarmaster: “He’s just a thoroughly modern businessman.” What was your understanding of the Beggarmaster and his place in the city’s society?

“You’d be surprised how much beggars are like ordinary human beings.” What does Mistry suggest about how different social factions are viewed?

“The real murderers will never be punished. For votes and power they play with human lives.” Does Mistry suggest a reason for the many instances of violence in A Fine Balance? Politicians? Capitalism? The caste system? Religion?

In a book that contains violence and intolerance, what examples did you find of love and tolerance? Which characters managed to cross class, caste, and religious boundaries?

What do you make of the final scene between Om, Ishvar, and Maneck? Why do the three not acknowledge one another?

“Today it is Sikhs. Last year it was Muslims; before that, Harijans. One day, your sudra and kusti might not be enough to protect you”. What point does Mistry make about religious (and other) intolerance. Can we relate this to our own society?

“It’s not a question of crime and punishment: it’s problem and solution.” What was your opinion of the “Beautification programme”?

“Someone should remind them they need to apply the laws.” What part does the law play in the novel? How does justice work in practice?

What is the significance of family in A Fine Balance? What different sorts of family relationships (traditional and otherwise) are there?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 September, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Precious Bane by Mary Webb. It is published by Virago Modern Classics at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-86068-063-5.

Set in the early 19th century, in the rural landscape of north Shropshire, Precious Bane (1924) tells the story of a brother and sister, Gideon and Prue Sarn. Prue is kind, strong, and warm, but derided and suspected by superstitious villagers because of her harelip (the “precious bane” of the title). Gideon, ambitious and cruel, focuses single-mindedly on making money (another “precious bane”) on the farm, mistreating his mother and sister along the way. Amid a life of hard labour and prejudice, Prue finds a passionate love for Kester Woodseaves, but does not believe herself worthy of his love.

The novelist and poet Mary Webb (1881-1927) began writing as a child as a way of entertaining her younger siblings. She had a deep love of nature, and taught herself evolutionary science by reading Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Ernst Haeckel. She was particularly inspired by her native Shropshire landscape, which features in much of her writing. Webb was admired by fellow writers including J. M. Barrie and John Buchan, and acclaimed by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who wrote an introduction to her novel Precious Bane. Her peak of popularity came shortly after her death, when her books became bestsellers.

October: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

November: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

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