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Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance

Mistry’s best-known novel is a big novel in both senses of the word. While it is certainly a fascinating read and tries hard to show that there is humanity in the world, it is also rather unpleasant with vicious cruelty abounding, from men having their genitals burned off by hot coals to forcible and botched sterilisations to plain vicious beatings. Mistry is clear as to who is primarily to blame for this state of affairs – Indira Gandhi. The book is set primarily during the Emergency with an epilogue set at the time of her assassination.

While rich in characters – including Mrs. Gandhi herself – the novel is mainly about four characters who meet early on in the novel and will meet again in very changed circumstances just before the end. Most of the action takes place in Bombay. Much of the action takes place in the flat of Dina Dalal, née Schroff. She is a Parsi, brought up in a well-to-do family. When her parents both die while she is still a child, she is brought up by her brother, Nusswan, fourteen years her senior. Nusswan is very conservative, while Dina is a rebel and there are constant clashes between the two, particularly after Nusswan’s marriage. When she reaches adulthood, he continually introduces her to eligible bachelors, whom she totally rejects. Eventually, she finds her own husband, Rustom Dalal, a pharmaceutical chemist, behind her brother’s back. Nusswan reluctantly agrees to the marriage only to be rid of his troublesome sister. The marriage is happy and they are able to live in Rustom’s rent-controlled flat. However, after three years of marriage, Rustom is killed when he is knocked off his bike by a car. Dina returns to her brother and sister-in-law but then realises she risks losing the rent-controlled flat and returns there, making a living by sewing, while her brother continues to introduce her to eligible bachelors, to no avail. However, when her eyesight starts going, she knows she needs to change direction and, with the help of her schoolfriend, Zenobia, she gets a contract to supervise two tailors making clothes for an export business. This brings us to the beginning of the novel.

Two of the remaining three main characters are uncle and nephew, Ishvar and Omprakash (Om) Darvi. The pair are Chamars. Their family came from a small village where their caste was the lowest of the low and made a living as tanners, when they could find a dead cow, or doing odd jobs, exploited, often, brutally, by the higher castes. Ishvar’s father and Om’s grandfather breaks with tradition – itself a dangerous thing to do – and has his sons apprenticed as tailors with a Muslim tailor. Though they learn the skill (and literacy at the same time), there is little work for them as they are going out of their caste. Nevertheless the tradition is passed to the next generation. While Ishvar and Om are away working for a tailor in a nearby town, Ishvar’s brother (Om’s father) dares to suggest that he should be allowed to vote for the candidate he selects. The result is that he is tortured to death, his family burned to death and the whole community savaged. Om and Ishvar stay with the Muslim tailor and, indeed, save his life during the Partition Riots. Mistri, indeed, makes the point that the relationship between the Muslims and Chamars is far warmer than that between these two parties and the Hindus. However, when work dries up, they look for work in Bombay and find it with Dina Dalal.

The final main character is Maneck Kohlah. His father, Farokh Kohlah, had rich lands, fields and orchards in North India. Unfortunately, most of them were on the wrong side of the frontier when Partition took place. As a result, they are left only with their shop. Fortunately, his father makes a success of the shop, not least because of his unique brand of soft drink, which everyone likes. Maneck’s mother, who was at school with Dina Lalal and Zenobia has adapted well to life in the mountains and Maneck loves it there, looking forward to taking over the shop when he is older. However, father and son clash and there is also a realisation that things are changing and he should get some qualifications. He is sent to Bombay to study. At first, he lives in the college in a very unpleasant dormitory. During the Emergency, things get worse and he and other outsiders are brutalised. Fortunately, his mother contacts Zenobia who contacts Dina, who needs the money a tenant will bring. The two tailors and Maneck travel on the same train and meet. They arrive on Dina’s doorstep together.

While the flashback of their early life is extensive, the rest of the book is their difficult life together. Maneck studies and becomes friendly with Om. The tailors live in a squat but, when they are brutally evicted, move into Dina’s cramped flat. The story of the tailoring business, the area surrounding the flat and the people who live near Ishvar and Om in the squat, all against the background of the Emergency, with its brutalisation of the poor people, is the core of this novel and Mistry pulls no punches. All four characters suffer, brutalised by goons and the police, forcibly kidnapped and sterilised, made to listen to Mrs. Gandhi, thrown out of the flat and more. It is not just the four main characters but all the others they come into contact with. Corruption and cruelty are the norm under Mrs. Gandhi and it is the poor that bear the brunt of the suffering. The well-to-do – Nusswan and Mrs. Gupta, Dina’s employer, for example – welcome the suppression of the unions and students, the cleaning up of the streets and enforced sterilisations. Mistry’s gift is to humanise the lowest of the low – the beggars, the handicapped, the poor – showing that they have as much rights as the rich but, in Gandhi’s India, those rights are viciously denied them.

There is no happy ending. The best you can hope for is survival, albeit under straitened circumstances, and three of the four do survive but not happily. Mistry tells a first-class story but it is not pretty, despite the glimpses of humanity that do show through, and is certainly not going to make you a supporter of Mrs. Gandhi.

Publishing history

First published in 1996 by Faber & Faber