Rohinton Mistry is among 13 authors
shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, which “highlights one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.” When I read A Fine Balance a few years ago I felt deprived that I hadn’t experienced this novel for so long. At the risk of sounding trite, I have to say that it’s one of those books that leaves you affected. It leaves you a little obsessed and completely devastated. At the end I wept as if I had lost a loved one or suffered a great tragedy. Perhaps my emotions are easily stirred, but I can think of no one I know who didn’t have a similar reaction.
This stirring of emotions and impassioned praise is evidence of Mistry’s craft. His writing is rightfully compared to Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy. It exudes a sensitive beauty while relaying a narrative that is bittersweet and often times based on a world that is ugly. Corruption, cruelty, friendship, love, poverty all intertwined in a tale that is bound tightly with the perfect use of language and allegory.
A Fine Balance takes place in the 1970s in Mumbai as Indira Gandhi’s government has declared a State of Emergency over disputed election results. The plight of unconnected characters leads to a friendship that forever changes the course of their destinies, fortunes and misfortunes. A lonely widow, an idealistic young student, and two tailors, victims of caste discrimination and cruelty struggle to survive as their country suffers a tumultuous era of its history, discarding of those who are not lucky enough to endure it all.
The lives of these characters are constantly ravaged by government atrocities, that Mistry brilliantly weaves into the underlying story. Each episode is connected and each character is connected, but you must reach the end to truly understand how and why. Om and Ishvar, the two poor tailors who, to me, were the heart and soul of the story, are probably two of the most memorable characters I have read.
Mistry, who is originally from the Parsi community of Mumbai, successfully brings forth issues pertaining to a number of communities in India. His characters are Parsi; they are Muslim; they are of the lowest caste in their village; they are middle class and educated. And the predominant commonality is that they are Indian, surviving the shattering effects of what turned out to be a cruel exercise of power by their then-Prime Minister.
I admire Rohinton Mistry’s ability to cast a jarring spotlight on the truth without being unnecessarily sensational. It is writing that exemplifies how fiction can be important and illuminating – how it can wake you up and shake you a little.