Dave Eggers can joke about it, but heartbreaking works of staggering genius are still produced, and “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry is one. That’s my humble opinion, anyway.
Why, you ask. What makes this a work of art, a genuinely moving experience? I don’t know, but for two weeks and 600 pages, I lived in India in the 1970s. I ate chapatis cooked by a skinny teenager in a small apartment. Thanks to the independent spirit and vision of my father, I learned a trade, sewing, that I could use to escape the cruel slavery of my village’s caste system. I felt the crack of the police officer’s truncheon against my elderly skull, not just the violence but the cold, impersonal nature of the injustice. I watched in horror as men with great power, and my Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, directed acts of violence safe in the knowledge that they could escape justice (in this world).
I lived it all through four main characters, and a rich panoply of supporting players.
These four – a single woman on her own, a college student, and an uncle and his nephew struggling with poverty in a big city — have little in common, except an independent streak. They don’t believe in passive acceptance of their intended lot in life.
The two characters that center the novel, the impoverished tailors Om and Ishvar, are periodically swept up in one governmental atrocity – or, program designed to deal with the “excess population,” i.e. the poor — after another. And they periodically meet others who comment on how the government is completely corrupt and vile and what a shame it is that India is being ruined from the top down. How it wasn’t always like this; how things keep getting worse. And if their leaders are completely criminal, what hope is there for the common man? There are dark hints of the IMF and World Bank, the CIA, and the ruthless nature – and monstrous sham — of big business.
But, a la Steinbeck, the common man and woman endure, finding refuge and humanity through solidarity, through acts of kindness and love. How the protagonists breakthrough society-forged manacles, how they negotiate the fine line between “passion and foolishness, kindness and weakness,” how they come to stand with mercy over cruelty, consideration over callousness is the novel’s beating heart.
We’re in this freak show together, “sailing under one flag,” Mistry seems to be saying. The suffering can be overwhelming, human dignity continually beset by impersonal forces, but life can and does offer bittersweet moments, small and great triumphs.
Do they balance out, hope and despair? After Mistry’s anything-but-sentimental ending, I’m still struggling with that, but I find that this line from one of the characters hits close to home: “Losing, and losing again, it is the very basis of the life process, till all we are left with is the bare essence of human existence.”