A Fine Balance:
A Novel

by Rohinton Mistry,
640 pages,
ISBN: 0679446087

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Not Job's Comforter
by Merna Summers

IF THE BOOK OF JOB WERE TO be set in India, its author could well be Rohinton Mistry. In his first novel, Such a Long Journey, Mistry described the many afflictions visited on one man, a Bombay bank clerk. In his new novel, he presents four major characters, a host of minor ones, and misfortunes beyond counting, but his principal character could be said to be the subcontinent itself. Mistry's portrait of India in the time of Indira Gandhi depicts lives of struggle, exploitation, and desperate loss, suggesting to the reader that when it comes to meting out afflictions, the Hebrew God was a piker compared to Mother India.

How do more or less good people survive in a world of corruption? How much can you take away from an individual and still have a human being left? These are questions that one ponders reading A Fine Balance, a book that is longer, more ambitious, less sharply focused, and perhaps angrier than its predecessor.

The central section of the novel brings together four characters from diverse backgrounds who live and work together in what will later seem a time of almost idyllic happiness. There is Dina, a widow intent on escaping a life as an unpaid servant in the home of a tyrannical brother. There is Maneck, her boarder, a student from the hill country, whose family lost its wealth during the partition of India. And there are two tailors, brought in to do piece work in an enterprise that Dina has set up. The tailors, uncle and nephew, were born into a family of untouchables who have risen in the world, and then fallen again.

The novel follows a plan that is leisurely to an astonishing degree. Mistry introduces his four main characters in the opening pages, and then leaves the present to go back in time to cover not only their previous lives, but also the lives of parents, friends, acquaintances, oppressors.

In Mistry's writing, there is a strong sense of how easy it is to come down in the world, and many of his characters have suffered dislocation. There is a philosophical proofreader who has become allergic to printer's ink, and a hair collector who believes that his trade is possible because: "Foreign women enjoy wearing other people's hair. Men also, especially if they are bald. In foreign countries they fear baldness."

But the book as a whole is less comedy than it is indictment, and the reading is often harrowing. Mistry's strategy of moving back and forth in time, and giving his characters a variety of histories, pen-nits him to cut a wide swath through the Indian experience, but it is the callousness and corruption of Indira Gandhi's time that is at the centre of the story. Beggars are swept from the streets in the interest of civic beautification, and taken to slave labour camps. In the name of population control, villages are denied wells, farmers are refused fertilizer and ration cards are withheld. When these pressures fail, the police round up unwiIIing candidates and auction them off in job lots, the purchasers being officials with government- imposed quotas to fill.

While all of this is going on, the comfortable in society go around averring that "there is nothing wrong in taking

strong measures," and the prime minister proclaims that "The Need Of the Hour Is Discipline."

Every novelist pays for the strategies he chooses to get his story told, and here the breadth that Mistry has elected comes at some cost. A Fine Balance is not as shapely a novel as Such a Long Journey. There is an awkwardness in its architecture, and a greater dependence upon narrative as opposed to dramatic presentation. There is also, for the reader, a certain frustration in finding the forward motion of the story checked again and again by the pileup of flashbacks. That said, Mistry's accomplishment is considerable. As in the previous novel, he gives us some unforgettable images.

Three sisters, whose father is too poor to provide them with dowries, hang themselves to spare their parents the shame of having unmarried daughters. A picture of them hanging from a ceiling fan appears in the newspaper.

"The three sisters looked disappointed," a character thinks, "as though they had expected something more out of hanging, something more than death, and then discovered that death was all there was."

"Where was God, the Bloody Fool?" a character asks himself. "Did He have no notion of fair and unfair? Couldn't He read a simple balance sheet?"

The novel's title comes from Yeats: "You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair." And sometimes, we feel, this is simply too much.

As Dina says in the end: "Where humans were concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure, and sorrow, for the hopelessness of it all."


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