A Fine Balance- Rohinton Mistry :40/52

Nothing fine or balanced here. Nothing.


This book should have been called Such a Long Journey.  A long uphill journey where every step those four people take upwards, they are dragged two steps down.

As crazy as it sounds, The Emergency fascinates me.  Mainly because I am not able to understand how, just how it could have happened, how the country could have let it happen. So much horror. Last month, on the anniversary of that dark period that India went through, pictures of Modi and Subramaniam Swamy disguised as Sikhs were doing the rounds. Ironic, given that 9 years later, Sikhs would shave off their beards and discard their turbans to escape death. People frustrated with government offices these days still invoke the time when everyone, right from the peon to the officers, were at their desks at 9 am sharp. But these memories are from those who lived sheltered lives back then. Like Nusswan and Mrs. Gupta. Not those who experienced the other side of The Emergency coin. Like Ishvar and Om. That unfine imbalance. No hope. Only despair.

A middle aged Parsi widow, trying to keep her head above water to remain independent from her uncaring brother. A man whose father defied his Village by The River and dared to do the unthinkable : turn cobblers into tailors. A young boy, the second generation of the Mochi- turned- Darji family. Another young boy uprooted from his peaceful mountains and thrown into the City by the Sea by his well-intentioned but stubborn parents. This unlikely foursome is brought together by destiny and torn apart by fate, the inevitable fate.

Every single character made a deep impact on me. The grateful Ashraf Chacha and that neighbourhood, the revolutionary college boy fighting The System, be it the college canteen caterer or the Prime Minister, the good-bad Beggarmaster, the happy legless beggar Shankar, the repentant rent collector, the Monkey man, his monkeys and that prophecy, the hair seller who keeps rising from his ashes, the policeman Kesar who does what good he can do with his system-tied hands. Everyone is a piece in a jigsaw puzzle that falls together to create a picture of Reality. Turn the jigsaw puzzle over and it forms another picture of  Reality with insensitive Nusswan, the shallow Sodawallas, the cold Mrs. Gupta , a sympathetic but judgy Zenobia,  the clueless Kohlahs,  the faceless Landlord, Thakur Dharamsi and the unnamed Prime Minister and Her Son.

I didn’t realise that this book was 600+ pages long , it just kept me going and going on the Kindle. It wasn’t enough. I read the last few pages again and again, trying to find some hidden ray of hope. There was no hope, but there was no despair too. The small but sweet victory in the end was significant enough. Acceptance, the midpoint between hope and despair. Or the sweet release of Death.

I felt an impotent anger throughout the book . An anger towards the unfairness of it all. Many things in this book kept drawing me to Today and it shames me to realise that nothing has actually changed since 1975. The slums remain, they have grown in size and not a whisper when they are razed to the ground; outrage is reserved only for illegal Campa Cola flats. Caste still makes girls swing lifeless from mango trees, gets children’s body parts cut off. Caste still draws crowds to the polling booths where a lone Narayan continues to defy once in a while and is nipped in the bud. Legless beggars continue to roll on wooden platforms, women with babies unrelated to them still tap on tinted glass windows at traffic signals, cars still run over pavement dwellers. Women burn midnight oil, sewing buttons and glitter on dresses that will sell in far off countries with a price tag more than their yearly wages. Politicians continue to recruit audience by the busload,claiming to be their servant, promising them that old promises will be kept.  Spending Rs. 47 a day puts people in the Not-Poor list. And the imbalance continues.

10 thoughts on “A Fine Balance- Rohinton Mistry :40/52

  1. You finished reading it already! Whew, that’s quite a task. I wasn’t expecting this to be reviewed in the next 2 weeks.

    I’m trying to recall my feeling when I read this book – all I remember is, that despite all the hardships and suffering that the protagonists went through, I didn’t feel depressed. I don’t normally enjoy depressing books, but there was something about this story / persons that just kept me glued to the book till the very end. Though it was exceedingly sad, it didn’t dampen my spirit. Despite every new setback, every new hardship, they just got on with their life. It wasn’t resilience, or perseverance or any fighting quality that they possessed, which would have made them appear heroic. That would have made their suffering seem more than what it really was. I think, as you have said, it was acceptance that made their lives tolerable and livable, and for us readers the book so engrossing and readable.

    • It was such an engrossing read that I kept telling myself ‘Just one more chapter’ and by the end of the weekend I had finished the book. It is depressing because it is not purely fiction. Such well chalked out characters. But yes, there was no resilience or fighting. They just took each day as it came. I’m a big fan of dark books and this one goes on top of my list.

  2. Coming to the issue of the Emergency, there have been 2 opposite kind of experiences that people had. All the excesses happened in the north, specifically in Delhi. The forced sterilizations, the destruction of the slums in Turkmen Gate area of Delhi.

    Politically all opposition leaders were under arrest with arbitrary detentions and torture. Freedom of speech was curbed, newspapers were censored, human rights suspended.

    In the south, specifically in Tamilnadu, it was a golden period for the common man, when everything worked like clock-work. People attended office on time, shops, groceries, hotels all published / displayed the prices of articles prominently. Prices of essential stuff was regulated – a meal cost Rs 1/- or less, a plate of idly 10 paise or was it 25 paise, something very cheap. Notebooks were made from paper supplied at subsidised rates, Until 1975, money and political recommendations were rampant in the the admission process to medical and engineering colleges. But from 1975 all admissions were based purely on merit. 1975 set a precedent during the admission process, which was followed meticulously.

    These again are vague memories that I have of that period.

    PS: On hindsight thinking about a state of that kind with Big Brother watching is frightening.

    • This is exactly what I have heard about the Emergency. Like most bad things that happen in the ocuntry, touchwood, the south is much better off. I remember a debate on Sun TV where Emergency won over British Rule and the existing democracy. I wish I was around to have ‘experienced’ this 🙂

      and PS: How do you know that Big Brother is not watching?

      • How do you know that Big Brother is not watching?
        As long as I don’t know that he is watching, I don’t have a problem.
        PS: You sure are paranoid 😛

  3. Addendum: Every government has enacted an ordinance or act, which has the provision for unquestioned detention, suspension of rights etc. During the emergency of 1975 it was the MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act), which was repealed by the Janata govt. But they brought in their own similar act under a different name. TADA, Goondas Act and POTA are other avatars of this act.

  4. Pingback: That Tag | The Book Story

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