This is one of those novels which hits you so hard between the eyes that it permanently changes you and your attitude. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) is another example. So, in a different way, is Matthew Kneale’s The English Passengers (2000). My overriding memory of reading A Fine Balance when it was first published back in 1995 was being left gasping at the indomitability of the human spirit. And twenty six years later it had exactly the same life-affirming effect.
We’re in – or near – an unnamed Indian city in 1975 when Indira Gandhi has just declared a state of emergency. Two tailors – uncle and nephew – have lost just about everything in their home village, thanks to corruption and cruelty so they travel into the city to find work. There their lives become tangled up with that of a youngish widow desperately trying to manage a small business and remain independent when everything is stacked against her. The fourth main character is a student who becomes friendly with the tailor nephew and lodges in the widow’s fairly humble home.
It’s a big brick of a book, Dickensian in its scope and proportions. Mistry gradually unwinds the back stories of all four, introducing as he goes a large colourful cast of minor characters such as Shankar the cheerful, friendly beggar whose body was “adjusted” in babyhood so that, legless he uses a ground level trolley and his boss Beggarmaster who emerges as a more complex character than first appears. Then there’s a professional hair seller, the rent collector and the man with the performing monkeys and children along with various relations and officials.
Beneath all this is a government employing many officious, professionally ruthless, people to “beautify” the city which means clearing out the homeless and – effectively – forcing sterilisations on almost anyone they can round up. The latter is a box ticking exercise and the authorities don’t care much who it is – from men in their eighties to lads in their late teens hoping to marry. And even in the sterilisation camps there is vengeance and vendetta.
And yet, whatever appalling thing befalls Mistry’s characters, this book is not ultimately a tragedy. The titular “fine balance” is between hope and despair and it’s the former which, despite everything, prevails most of the time. It’s a compelling read too. You might emerge from it feeling battered – as I have done twice – but you’ll also feel warm admiration for people who can simply “keep buggering on” with a smile. It’s a page-turner horror story presented with appealing optimism.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.