Friday, April 9, 2010

335. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

History: First published in 1995, the book exposes the changes in Indian society from independence in 1947 to the Emergency called by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mistry is generally critical of P. M. Gandhi in the book. Interestingly, however, Gandhi is never referred to by name by any of the characters, and is instead called simply "the prime minister". The characters, from diverse backgrounds, are all brought together by economic forces changing India.
Plot: At the beginning of the book, the two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash, are on their way to the flat of Dina Dalal via a train. While on the train, they meet a college student named Maneck Kohlah, who coincidentally is also on his way to the flat of Dina Dalal to be a boarder. They become friends and go to Dina's flat together. Dina hires Ishvar and Om for piecework, and agrees to let Maneck stay with her. Dina then reflects on her past and how she was brought to her current situation.
Dina grew up in a wealthy family. Her father was a medical doctor who died when she was twelve. Her mother was withdrawn and unable to take care of Dina after her father's death, so the job fell to Nusswan, Dina's brother. Nusswan was rather abusive to Dina, sticking her with all the housework, forcing her to do all the cooking, cleaning, and drop out of school, and hitting her when she misbehaved. Dina rebelled against Nusswan and his prospective suitors for her when she became of age, and found her own husband, Rustom Dalal, at a concert hall. Nusswan and his wife Ruby were happy to get Dina out of their hair and let her marry Rustom and move to his flat. Dina and Rustom lived happily for three years until Rustom died on their third wedding anniversary, after being hit by a bus while on his bicycle. Dina became a tailor under the guidance of Rustom's surrogate parents to avoid having to move in with Nusswan . After twenty years her eyesight gave out from complicated embroidery and she was once again jobless. She eventually met a lady from a company called Au Revoir Exports (Mrs. Gupta), who would buy ready-made dresses in Au Revoir patterns. She agrees to let Dina sew the patterns and she will buy the dresses and pay Dina. But since Dina has very poor eyesight, she decides to hire tailors. She also decides to have a paying guest to generate more income for her rent.
The tailors rent their own sewing machines, and come to Dina's flat each day for nearly two weeks before the first round of dresses is completed. The three get along fairly well, but Dina and Omprakash don't see eye to eye all the time. Omprakash is angry that Dina is a middle-man and he wants to sew for Au Revoir directly. Dina locks the tailors in her flat from the outside so that they will not find out what company they are sewing for and thus cut her out of the picture, and sets off to Au Revoir Exports for the lady, Mrs. Gupta, to buy the dresses. Om and Ishvar remain enclosed in the flat and the author reveals their past and how they came to the current situation.
Ishvar's father, Dukhi Mochi, lived in a village and was of the Hindu Chamaar caste, and being an "untouchable," was forced to do unseemly work for the upper castes and suffered much caste violence. He despised his lifestyle and when he had two sons, Ishvarband Narayan, he sent them off to be apprenticed at the shop of a Muslimbtailor in the next town named Ashraf Chacha. Ashraf Chacha taught Ishvar and Narayan to be top-notch tailors. When Ishvar was about seventeen, there was terrible violence in the country against Muslims. Muslims were slaughtered and their homes and shops were burned to the ground. Ishvar and Narayan save Ashraf Chacha and his family when a mob arrives by claiming that the shop is theirs. Ashraf is saved and indebted to Ishvar and Narayan. Ishvar stays on with Ashraf Chacha as an assistant even as he grows up, not returning to live in the village, although he often visits. Narayan returns to the village and opens a tailor shop for the lower castes, which is highly successful. He eventually builds a house instead of a hut and has a son named Omprakash and two daughters. Narayan does not work for the upper castes and avoids them. However when the time comes to vote, he is angry that the votes are fixed by a powerful upper classman. The lower castes just give their fingerprints as proof of voting, and the upper castes fill in the ballots as they like. Narayan is angry and confronts the upperclassman, Thakur Dharamsi, who fixes the votes. Thakur becomes angry and has Narayan and his accomplices tortured, killed and displayed to the lower castes. Thakur also wants to punish the whole family, so he has Narayan's father, mother, wife, and children and whole family tied up in their house, then sets the house on fire, burning all of them to death. However, Ishvar and his nephew Om were at the shop of Ashraf Chacha, in the next town, and therefore safe. They hear of the murders and try to involve the police, but bribed by Thakur, they do not help. A pre-made clothing shop opens in their town, so they are forced to move to Mumbai to find work. They hear of Dina Dalal through an old but disloyal friend of Ashraf Chacha named Nawaz who lives in the city. Nawaz is mostly inconsiderate but he suddenly becomes helpful when he realizes that connecting Ishvar and Om with Dina will give them their own place to stay and relinquish his neglected responsibility of hospitality.
The tailors and Dina have arrived at a working arrangement when Maneck moves in a month later. Maneck befriends Omprakash and Ishvar, which Dina dislikes because she feels they are lower class. But the way Maneck was raised, he doesn't care about the classes and remains friends with them despite Dina's displeasure. Dina likes Om and especially Ishvar, but doesn't necessarily consider them equals. As Maneck goes to school one day, the author in turn reveals his past.
Maneck was born in a mountain village to two loving parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kohlah. His father owned a store that had been in the family for generations. The store sold household necessities and manufactured the locally popular soda, Kohlah Cola. Maneck spent his days going to school, helping at the store, and going on walks with his father. When he was in the fourth standard, Maneck was sent to boarding school to help his education, much to his dismay. After this, his relationship with his parents deteriorates because he does not wish to be separated from them and feels betrayed. On a break from school, he is left alone to care for the shop for two days when his parents attend a wedding, and he rearranges some of the displays because he feels that the shop could use some pizzazz. He is extremely proud of his ideas and eager for his father's positive reaction. But when his father returns and finds the shop different, he yells at Maneck and is angry that the shop is not how he left it. Maneck loses much respect for his father and begins to shut himself off from his family. His parents only want the best for him, such as an education, and they are willing to send him away if that is what it takes, so they send him to a college and pick his major, refrigeration and air-conditioning, for him.
Maneck goes to college and stays at the student hostel. When he first arrives he is exhausted and settles on the bed. In the middle of the night he feels something crawling up his leg and discovers an infestation of cockroaches. His room turns out to be filled with vermin and he tries to kill all of them by stomping on them. A neighbor hears the noise and helps by giving him pesticide spray. Maneck becomes friends with this neighbor, Avinash, who is also the student president. Avinash teaches Maneck chess and they play together often. The hostel conditions they live in are poor and the food is nearly inedible. When a vegetarian discovers meat in his soup, the students are disgusted and they almost attack the cafeteria workers. The students eventually are inspired and Avinash leads them in an uprising against the Institution for better conditions. He becomes involved in political events, for which Maneck has little interest, and their friendship is no longer a priority for Avinash. They start seeing each other quite infrequently. But when the Emergency is declared in India, political activists had to go into hiding in order to be safe, Avinash included. Maneck, no longer having friends in the student hostel, has his mother arrange a different living situation for him, and he moves in with Dina Dalal, but he still has Avinash's chess set, because he can't return it.
Dina and the tailors' business runs fairly smoothly for almost a year, but effects of the Emergency bother them often. The shantytown where the tailors live is knocked down in a government "beautification" program, and the residents are uncompensated and forced to move into the streets. Later Ishvar and Om are rounded up by a police beggar raid and are sold to a labor camp. After two months in the camp, they bribe their way out with the help of the Beggarmaster, a kind of pimp for beggars. Ishvar and Om are lucky and Dina decides to let them stay with her. The tailors and Dina find trouble from the landlord, because she is not supposed to be running a business from her flat. She pretends that Ishvar is her husband and Om their son and also get protection from the Beggarmaster.
Ishvar and Om return to their village to find a wife for Omprakash, who is now 18. Maneck returns home, finished with his first year in college (he has received a certificate but not a degree), but has stiff relations with his family and finds that his father's business is failing due to the invasion of cheap commercial sodas. He takes a lucrative job in the Middle East to escape the conditions.
Dina being alone now, and her protector the Beggarmaster having being murdered, has no protection from the landlord who wants to break her apartment's rent control and charge more rent, so she is evicted. Dina is forced to again live with her brother, Nusswan, to her utter dismay and embarrassment.
Omprakash and Ishvar return to their old town to find that Ashraf Chacha is an elderly man whose wife died and daughters were all married off. He barely survives with his tailoring business but is safe from mob violence because there is little Muslim persecution. He gives them a place to stay while they search for marriage prospects for Om. While they walk around the village, they run into the upper-caste Thakur Dharamsi. Omprakash recognizes him and spits in his direction. Thakur in turn recognizes Om, and decides to somehow pay Om back for his disrespect of an upper caste member. When Ashraf Chacha, Ishvar, and Om are in the village, they run into herders from the Family Planning Centre. At the Family Planning Centre, the government gives free vasectomies and tubectomies in an effort to control population. They are supposedly optional, but encouraged, and each Centre has a certain quota to fill or they are not paid. The Centre in this city did not fill its quota, so they took random people from the street and forced them into a truck that drove them to the Family Planning Centre. Ishvar and Om resist, because Ishvar wants Om to have a family once he is married. However they are beaten into the truck, including Ashraf Chacha. But since Ashraf Chacha is so old, he is gravely injured by the beating and later dies on the street. Ishvar and Omprakash weep in the truck and beg to escape the forced sterilization, but the surgery takes place. As they lie in an outside tent recovering with other victims, Thakur Dharamsi comes by to be sure that the Centre's quota has been filled. He sees Om recovering and whispers something to a doctor. The doctor, horrified, nonetheless takes Om back to surgery and cuts off his testicles. They encounter no more trouble from Thakur, now that he has had revenge by making Om a eunuch. Ishvar's legs become infected due to the vasectomy and must be amputated. However, Ishvar and Om have nowhere to go now that Ashraf Chacha has died. His son-in-law sells his house and they are forced to leave town.
Eight years later, Maneck returns home for the first time from his Middle East job for his father's funeral. He has been unhappy there as well. He tries to hail a taxi to the train station from the airport, but most taxi drivers refuse to take him because of the dangerous riots going on. He finally manages to convince a taxi driver to take him for double the normal fee. The taxi driver tells him that the riots going on are targeting Sikhs, a religious minority. Like the Muslim riots of long ago, they are burning their houses, chopping up the men and boys, raping the women and girls, and destroying their places of worship. The driver himself is a Sikh, and desperately needs the money. Maneck is repulsed by the violence and angry that there is nothing he can do. He returns home and goes to the funeral, but can't bring himself to truly miss his father, only the father of his young childhood.
While at home he reads old newspapers that his father has kept for some reason. In one he sees a picture of three teenage girls who hanged themselves from a ceiling fan. He is saddened by the picture and reads from the article that the three girls hanged themselves because their parents could not afford dowries for them to get married, and didn't want to shame their family by being unmarried their whole lives. The parents of the three daughters are heart-broken, but the article says that this is not the first time they have experienced heartache. They had a son, Avinash, a former student who advocated for fair politicians and better public conditions. He was found dead by railroad tracks, apparently having fallen off a train, but his injuries were suspicious and did not seem inflicted by his supposed cause of death. Maneck already knew of Avinash's death, but is astounded at suffering the family went through. He runs out into the rain storm that was occurring and later decides to visit Dina in the city.
He visits the city and visits Dina at her brother's house, and they catch up. He is pleased to see her and happy that she remembered him. She feels the same, as since she met Maneck she regarded him as a son. She gives Maneck Avinash's chess set that he accidentally left behind, and Maneck feels like he lost Avinash all over again. Maneck asks about Ishvar and Om, and Dina tells him that they have become beggars, and Ishvar lost his legs. Maneck is appalled, because he can't believe that the spirited tailors he knew would ever stop working and stoop so low as to become beggars. He can't understand how his friend Om would let himself down, and he excuses himself from Dina and promises to visit soon, upset from the news. As he leaves, he encounters Om and Ishvar on the street. The two former tailors are nearly unrecognizable because of their filth, and don't appear to recall him. They say "Salaam" to him, but he doesn't know what to say and walks on.
It turned out that Om and Ishvar were on their way to visit Dina. They are still friends, and she gives them meals and money when the house is empty. They visit her nearly every day. Dina and the beggars discuss their lives and how Maneck has changed from a pleasant and friendly college student to a distant refrigeration specialist. Om and Ishvar leave as Ruby returns, promising to visit after the weekend. Dina washes up their plates and clears up all evidence of their visit, and returns the plates to the cupboard, where they are to be used later by Nusswan and Ruby.
Maneck goes to the train station, his world shattered. He walks out on the tracks as an express train approaches the station. The author said, "Maneck's last thought was that he still had Avinash's chessmen."
Review: Initially distrustful of one another, Dina, Maneck, Ishvar, and Om gradually build loving, familial bonds and learn together "to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair" in a society suddenly turned inhumanly cruel and corrupt.
This book brings us face to face with the brutalities of which such supposedly progressive governments as Indira Ghandi's are capable, and depicts just how intolerable life in these societies can be. It amply demonstrates that native rule is no panacea for the ills of the Third World and helps us to understand why refugees from these countries continue to seek a better life in America, long after their colonial masters have left them, seemingly, in control of their own fates. In the end it is ideas--such as freedom; and equality under the law; and opportunity--which really matter and which provide the setting in which people, such as those so lovingly portrayed here, can maintain their balance and realize their dreams. Though it takes place in a time of political upheaval and chaos, A Fine Balance is not a political diatribe. Instead, it is a beautiful and compassionate portrait of the resiliency of the human spirit when faced with death, despair, and unconscionable suffering.
Opening Line: “The morning express, bloated with passengers, slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as if to resume full speed.”
Closing Line: “Then she dried her hands, and decided to take a nap before she started the evening meal.”
Quotes: “What sense did the world make? Where was God, the Bloody Fool? Did He have no notion of fair and unfair? Couldn't He read a simple balance sheet? He would have been sacked long ago if He were managing a corporation, the things he allowed to happen.”
“The road towards self-reliance could not lie through the past.”
Rating: Superb.

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