Savita Kalhan grew up in High Wycombe. She did a Joint Honours degree in Politics and Philosophy, and now lives in North London, with a view of the woods and the changing seasons from the room where she writes. Her first published novel, The Long Weekend, was shortlisted for the Fabulous Book Award in 2010. In this post Savita discusses Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.
Savita Kalhan on A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
I was born in India, but I've lived in the UK all my life, and although my parents were very traditional Indians and we were brought up in a strict Hindu household, we learnt little of the history of India, or of contemporary Indian life. At school, History lessons were devoted to British History, flavoured by choice bits of European History. Even though we lived in the UK, ours was a world steeped in Indian culture and society, but it was the culture and society of my parents around the time they left India in the early 60s. They preserved it as an inflexible, clearly delineated entity, to the point where it seemed that the first-generation Indians who had moved their lives to the UK had all taken an unspoken vow to adhere religiously to those memories and pass them on to the next generation. They were unwilling to acknowledge, or were perhaps unable to see, that Indian culture and society were in a constant state of flux back home. For second-generation Indians like myself life became a matter of two choices – follow my parents' rules and norms or be labelled a rebel. I was forced to become the latter, although at great cost to me. When I finally broke free, I was compelled to turn my back on a huge part of my early life. Only later did I begin to try and see the wider picture and want to learn more.
It was through reading that I discovered India, through the works of writers such as Amitav Gosh, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul, R.K. Narayan, Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth and many others. They are all great writers, and unique voices that span the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, even travelling to the far reaches with the Indian migrants who settled the world over, and telling their stories. I had no idea Indian culture was so rich, so diverse, so tragic and yet so warm. Through their writings I heard so many voices, saw through so many eyes, and listened to some truly great stories. I was learning so many things about Indian culture and society. I was re-learning what it was to be Indian.
Central to Indian society is the caste system, which although officially abolished, is still very much alive and kicking. I thought I knew all about the caste system when I was growing up, but in reality I knew next to nothing. I was born into a family of Brahmins, and had no idea what it meant to be born into the 'lower' castes – particularly as, unlike some of their generation, my parents were never discriminatory.
The work that had the most profound effect on me and my understanding of the country of my birth, its customs, traditions and people, was Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. Mistry did not start writing until well after he had left India. He graduated with a degree in Maths and Economics from the University of Mumbai, and emigrated to Canada where he went to work in a bank. Some years later he decided to pursue a degree in English and Philosophy. It was while he was there that he started writing stories. He won the Hart House literary short story prize two years consecutively. Tales of Firozsha Baag was a collection of short stories set in an apartment block in modern day Mumbai. Then came Such a Long Journey, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and won many others. Later, after it was adopted as a University text in Mistry's old university, it was to come under attack by extremists and was withdrawn despite a huge outcry.
A Fine Balance is the book of his I truly love. It stands the test of time. As a portrayal of life in Bombay in India during the 1970s, it is, for me, without comparison. I've lent out my hardback copy to friends, who, with the exception of one person, have absolutely loved it. The one exception's pronouncement on it was: 'Good melodrama' - which was tantamount to blasphemy in my eyes. Needless to say, I have not recommended books to him again.
The sad fact of the matter is that the everyday lives of the characters may well have seemed like melodrama to him, as though the author had simply sensationalized the harshness of his characters' lives for the sole purpose of giving the reader something more than a portrayal of the humdrum nature of abject poverty. For all the harsh realism contained within its pages, and there is much, the novel is one of carefully, almost poetically, crafted prose, which forms a story that is memorable and harrowing. It is far removed from the magical realism of Salman Rushdie's work, also originally from Mumbai, yet there is something magical in each page of this book, and even the most minor character you stumble upon within its pages is treated to the magic of his penmanship.
A Fine Balance was shortlisted for the Booker prize, has won countless others, and even made it onto Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. It hasn't been to everyone's taste. Germaine Greer hated it and said it in no way resembled the India she had come to know after spending all of four months there. Others have criticized Mistry for appropriating a turbulent time in Indian politics to meet his own ends and the needs of his characters. Personally, I don't understand this criticism, unless such critics balk at the atrocities of those times coming under public scrutiny after such a long period. In A Fine Balance Mistry explores the inherent inequalities of the caste system, extreme poverty, high level corruption, and life during the turmoil of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, and the sterilization programme, and the 'Beautification' policies, which led to the forced removal of street-dwellers into indentured labour. His characters are drawn from many Indian communities including the Parsi, Hindu, Muslim communities; from Untouchables to Prime Minister, from beggars to thieves; but there are four central characters of different backgrounds and histories, and it is through their hearts and minds that the story is told.
It is a tale of a Parsi woman, Dina, two tailors and a student from the north, four disparate people whose lives, outlooks, preconceptions and prejudices are fundamentally changed over a period of time after their first meeting. Tragedy exists at the heart of each of their stories, it permeates each page, yet the resilience of their spirit sits right next to it, tempering it. 'You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair' - and quite simply, that is exactly what Rohinton Mistry does.
His work speaks to me as an Indian, but it is universal in scope and in its depiction of humanity. He is, above all, a writer who plunges you, heart and mind, deep into his stories, where you remain submerged until the final page has been turned and you come up, gasping for air.
'... his sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without drawing attention to the stitches' - this is a line spoken by one of Mistry's characters, and perhaps best describes the mastery and craft of Rohinton Mistry himself. In A Fine Balance he has created a complex and tightly-woven tapestry of humanity at its best and at its worst. It is a literary masterpiece.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]