India Is Like That Only

by Kenneth Champeon, Sep 24, 2003 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

Hemingway told budding novelists that they should read the best literature and then try to accomplish the same thing in a new way. Seems obvious enough. Faulkner said something similar: literature must never neglect "the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed." But many contemporary writers, easily distracted by a constant barrage of novelty, ignore this advice. Instead they write about television shows or cologne ads, about Prozac or chemotherapy. And they write most ardently about their irreplaceable, their golden selves. Their language is often designed to impress or obfuscate; they do not write from the heart but from the brain. They may tickle your intellect, but they leave your heart cold.

Of Indian novelists writing in English, Salman Rushdie may be most guilty of this charge, Arundhati Roy somewhat less so. Both delight in wordplay and invention. The worlds they create are internally coherent, but their worlds are not our worlds. They are so bogged down by references to the present that they will fail to transcend time. And the transcendence of time is one of the prerequisites of a classic.

Rushdie and Roy seem to be inspired by Joyce, Nabokov, and their offshoots. But Bombay-born Canadian author Rohinton Mistry seems to be nourished by a more pre-modernist tradition. Reading his epic, 752-page novel A Fine Balance, one wonders if it was first published in 1996, or 1896. Some people say that the main character of Joyce's Ulysses is the English language. But Mistry focuses on his characters, and his prose is like a windowpane, as Orwell put it. Mistry demolishes claims that the novel is dead, or that it must become more like TV, cinema, or a web page. Though set in the late twentieth century, A Fine Balance is as satisfying and as timeless as the classics of yore.

The novel's action centers in Bombay during the Emergency, Indira Gandhi's attempt to save Indian democracy by destroying it. Voted out of office, Nehru's no-nonsense daughter seized power through an act of legal contortionism. She jailed opponents, muzzled journalists, and inaugurated an era of "discipline" in a country where, as one of the novel's Indira-supporters chirps, "laziness" is the chief "curse". The novel is not a political tract. But it is fairly clear what Mistry thinks of the Emergency. It was cruel and farcical. But it forms only a menacing backdrop, sometimes a nuisance, at other times a cause of death.

The novel has four main characters. The Parsi widow Dina has defied her brother's insistence that she remarry and that she live with his family. Desperately seeking a life preserver, she goes into the garment business as a middlewoman. To this end she employs two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash, a.k.a. Om. They have fled to Bombay in order to escape inter-caste violence, which has taken the lives of Om's father Narayan among others. They have also come because a sudden onslaught of cheap, ready-made clothes from foreign factories has rendered their tailoring shop irrelevant. "Something I've never even seen," sighs the shop's owner, "is ruining the business I have owned for forty years." This is globalization's dark underbelly, responsible for what has been called the largest migration in history: that of Asia's villagers to its cities. And like many such migrants, the tailors falsely believe that they will soon return home.

The Parsi boy Maneck has come to Bombay from some Himalayan idyll to get his college degree. But his school dormitory is ruled by imbeciles fond of hazing, so he begs his parents for an alternative. Dina, schoolmate to Dina's mother, takes the boy in for the rent money. Thus begins a relationship that becomes increasingly maternal, and strapping Maneck occasionally has Oedipal urges.

India's great strength and its Achilles' heel is the diversity of its people, diversity arguably unmatched by any other comparable landmass. During and after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India was beset with angry Hindu mobs seeking to eradicate the country''s remaining Muslim population, which had lived alongside Hindus for generations. As Mistry rightly points out, it was odd to hear calls for Hindu unity when castes had been at each other's throats forever. (Gandhi's noble insistence that Muslims and Hindus treat each other fraternally, and that untouchability be abolished, probably won him more enemies than friends.)

As a Parsi, Dina can ignore Hindu-Muslim bickering, the Parsis having arrived in India from Persia (albeit as a result of Muslim persecution) as early as the 7th century. But she can't seem to treat the tailors as her equals. They come from a low caste of craftsmen, whereas the Parsees have traditionally headed Bombay's commercial class. In Bombay you often hear calls for solidarity amidst diversity, but A Fine Balance allows these calls to echo. Dina accepts the tailors just before they return to their village and its climate of perpetual revenge.

The title of the novel refers to the necessary balance between hope and despair, and Mistry deftly shows how India has so much, sometimes far too much, of both. One of the novel's most devil-may-care characters is a limbless beggar named Shankar, who drags himself through the streets on a trolley, while one of its most admirable is the man they call the Beggarmaster, who employs Shankar and many others for profit. In Bombay you always meet happy creatures who in a just world would be more miserable than you are.

Mistry is forever twisting our initial impressions of a character into something different. Om's truculence becomes easier for Dina to understand, when she learns that virtually his whole family had been murdered, his hutment in the Bombay slums bulldozed, him and his uncle thrown into a labor camp. After she has shrieked at her obstinate rent-collector to quit his job and live off his children, she slams the door in his face. But then the old man cries: "I have to work, I am all alone".

Mistry concerns himself with the big events of human life - birth, work, celebration, marriage, sickness, death. And death in particular. In India children die at 10 times the rate that they do in America, and the poor are sometimes murdered for the sake of their organs. Life is cheap. And this in part explains the Emergency's most controversial policy: bribing or forcing Indians to be sterilized, where the bribe was sometimes no more than a transistor radio. In some respects defensible, the measure had unforeseen results - repeated vasectomies, mutilation, death. And as with anything in India, it was the poor who suffered the brunt.

A bleak book, a bleak Bombay. So how do they manage? They delight in small things and courtesies. Maneck teaches Om how to play chess; Om teaches Maneck how to be a peeping Tom. After having to ferry their trunk daily between Dina's flat and their home on the sidewalk, the tailors embrace her offer to protect it, at no little risk to herself. They make jokes, watch Hindi movies, guzzle tea. They eat mouthwatering food. They adopt a stray cat's progeny. They defy darkness with light, and match misery with compassion. They evince that natural buoyancy that makes the company of Indians so pleasurable amidst so much indefensible misery.

Not that the book lacks villains. The police have little to recommend them; in some ways they are worse than the mafia. A flatulent pandit comes across as callous. A bunch of goondas smashes Dina's house (and Maneck's face). No Indian politician escapes condemnation, not even Indira. "For politicians, passing laws is like passing water," remarks Om's father. "It all goes down the drain."

And ultimately everyone is corrupt, from the nightwatchman at the tailors' sidewalk to Dina herself, who accepts the Beggarmaster's illicit protection of her flat. Cyclists stage accidents to get paid off; political rallies are filled with people interested only in "attendance money" or in promises of snacks and tea; ballots are flagrantly stuffed. As in Family Matters, his most recent novel, Mistry portrays corruption as so inescapable that it becomes unexceptional. Instead law becomes the aberration in a system governed, and even governed effectively, by brute force and hard cash.

And supposing any dreamy-eyed hippies retain any illusions on the matter, it should be said that the India of Gandhi and Buddhism and Jainism can be a breathtakingly violent place. Partially this can be blamed on the natural tendency of humans to become inhuman in reaction to scarcity or oppression, but the violence in India can be utterly medieval. Mistry shows men being castrated, dogs eviscerating monkeys, women hanging themselves from ceiling fans. An animal's horn disfigures the face of Ishvar, a vehicle crushes the skull of Dina's husband, Shankar's runaway trolley soars into traffic. Scared of guns? Try lathis for a change.

Sulky Maneck conceives his own variation on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. "Everything," he says, "ends badly. It's the law of the universe." Lacking the marks required to continue his studies, he ships out like so many Indians to Dubai - an "empty" place, he concludes. Dina loses her flat as well as her eyesight, despite Maneck's stern advocacy of carrots. The tailors' homecoming is intended to get Om a wife, but the gangs and the government have other plans.

Our lives have happy endings only if death means peace and rest, and not hell or damnation. And the ending of A Fine Balance, again in a 19th-century vein, shares the realism of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. And speaking of the former, Mistry early introduces us to the fact that suicides commonly employ the momentum of Bombay's trains.

Having lived in Bombay, I pined for the city in all its gruesomeness and glory when I turned the last page. Mistry reminds me that Indians add "only" to their sentences as an emphatic particle (as in "Paan we don't chew only".) A main concern of Indian women is their fear of being groped by commuters, priests, tailors. "There was no such thing as perfect privacy," Mistry writes, "life was a perpetual concert-hall with a captive audience." Nor was there such a thing as too much hospitality, by which a Westerner will be both delighted and oppressed. Mistry writes of the citizens' constant proximity to sewage, their fickle water supply (in the novel it runs only in the mornings), their use of "immersion water heaters" in the shower. Wandering around Bombay, Om asks himself a question I asked myself, continue to ask myself: "What was there for anyone to laugh about in such a wretched place?" (The nightwatchman has the correct answer: "You watch it day after day, then you stop noticing.") Mistry's eye misses nothing: "The teas arrived with a splash, the cups sitting in little brown-puddled saucers." He even succeeds in depicting a Hindi film billboard with words more evocative than the billboards themselves:

"The first panel showed four men tearing off a woman's clothes. An enormous bra-clad bosom was exposed, while the men's lips, parted in lewd laughter, revealed carnivorous teeth and bright-red tongues. The second panel depicted the same woman, her clothes in tatters, mowing down the four men with automatic gunfire."

A Fine Balance was only shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while Rushdie's Midnight's Children was deemed the best of 25 other Booker Prize winners. Admittedly the latter was a virtuoso performance, but it lacks a certain majesty; it fails to show life in the round. One can only relate so much to children gifted with supernatural powers, and eventually Rushdie's self-regarding cleverness grows tiresome. And the same goes for Roy's The God of Small Things. No novel communicates contemporary India in all its prosaic hope and despair as well as this one. It's a shame I haven't read it until now only.

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Review of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, Penguin, 2003.

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