Another passage to India

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Beggars on the Street

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry was written in 1995, about twenty years after the period it describes, The Indira Gandhi era of The Emergency of 1975,  but perhaps not much had changed when he wrote, and even now that may be true.  I spent four or five months in India in 1979-1980, travelling very cheaply, surrounded by the types of people he describes.  That is, I was not cocooned in an air conditioned tour bus, and I ate where street workers and small businessmen ate, and sometimes they would talk with me.  Sometimes a lot…  This book brought back thoughts of that trip in vivid ways, and gave meaning to images that are still with me, and from which I have never been able to make much sense.  More on that later, perhaps.

The novel has an epigraph that is a quotation from Balzac:

Rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction.  All is true.

Many of the negative commentators on this book at Amazon (I always find the thumbs-down views of more interest than the raves) seem to want a fiction, or to want a book that is more according to their taste.  The story is almost unremittingly depressing, and I shared the feelings of many readers who commented that they found it difficult to return to it after putting it down, yet they did, as did I, because Mistry is a fine writer who draws you in with his first page.  (How DOES he do that? What is there in his craft that casts this spell; I mean, what exactly is it in his words, at the level of the sentence, as some critics say? When a book fails at this, it is easy to point out specific weaknesses, but when it succeeds, for me at least, it is like magic.) Some commentators were angry and disappointed that Mistry offers not a shred of a happy ending to redeem the horrors his characters endure.  “A fine balance” refers to the necessary attitude humans must take between hope and despair, but Mistry is definitely light on the hope side of the scales.  The only positive things about the happenings in this book are that many characters show great warmth towards one another, and some show the ability to change from indifference to love.  It is a measure of the horror of the situations he presents that even this, turning towards love, seems like a small, weak thing:  all the people who show decency are destroyed by physical mutilation, social smothering, or their own unbearable powerlessness.

To say that the plot of this book is contrived is to miss the point of it:  it is, in some sense, an extended fable.  Like Dickens, to whom Mistry is compared by some reviewers, the book is filled with coincidences that seem, on reflection, to be improbable. By the time the reader is at the end of the tale, it should be obvious that this is not through carelessness, but is deliberate.  Just as calculated is the rain of misfortune that befalls the two tailors who make their escape from rural caste violence to the city where they seek their fortune.  Could everything happen to two people that happens to them?  They seem to always be at the wrong place, at just the worst moment:  rounded up for forced work gangs by Indira Gandhi’s City Beautification project; hauled in by thugs at a forced sterilization clinic;  caught in a brutal slum clearance episode, to name a few dark spots in their story.  To readers who feel that (I am paraphrasing some comments)… Mistry just piles on misery after misery, and should have held out some positive ray of hope…nobody would keep getting dumped on that way…  I wold reply, tell that to the five-year old child born to beggars in the street who has nothing in his future but just that.  To ask for something else from the novel is to deny the reality of these people, which is exactly what Mistry wants to force us to see.  To have all these things happen to oneself, or just one that is enough to destroy you, it hardly matters which is the case.

The epigraph of the book is from Balzac; reviewers mention Dickens; and I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  It’s been so many years since I read it, perhaps I am off-base, but the relentless grinding down of the characters by uncaring social circumstances is common to both books.  And of course, there are the children of Jude’s who hang themselves “…because we are too menny,” that appear in the form of three young sisters who hang themselves with their saris.  The story of these sisters is related through an old newspaper story read by one of the characters in the epilogue to the book:  that character, one for whom we feel there is something of a chance of a decent life because of his education and his loving family, echoes the tragedy of Ana Karenina.  Whatever the literary influences acting upon Mistry, he is telling a story about India, not Europe.

When I traveled in India, I saw lots of beggars, horribly deformed.  I stepped over lots of families sleeping in the streets.  I saw a man walking along the street in a small town react with horror and fright when a field worker accidentally brushed his clothing in the street:  he immediately began to furiously brush at the fabric, peering intently at it to see if there was some stain.  He was not just worried about a laundry bill – he feared pollution.   I waited in line outside a barber’s shack to get a shave in a rural village, and watched the man’s eyes dilate with terror when a local Brahman pushed himself to the front of the line. The man was faced with a horrible dilemma; insult a white European, or the Brahman.  I just smiled and waved to set him at ease, and was eyed with contempt by the priest.  Just the teeny-tip-of-the-iceberg of the caste system in rural India.

The novel is filled with characters consumed with anxiety and feelings of disgust:  anxiety for their safety or their precarious livelihoods, and disgust for those limitless numbers of people who are worse off than they.  Usually, these characters are those with a little bit of authority or education:  business people, local functionaries, policemen, petty politicians.  Those with power use it brutally to enrich and protect themselves; their contempt acts as a spur to their actions and a justification for it, an old story.  Because the people of this strata of India often know some English, I tended to meet a lot of them.  I also met a lot who were not  brutal or totally self-serving, but who seemed consumed with anger and frustration at their situation, their powerlessness, the unfairness of it all.  To them, I was from a blessed world where people could actually do as they pleased.  And of course, compared to them, even traveling on $1.00 a day, I was vastly rich.  Often, they would beg me to help them.  It is this desperation that Mistry illuminated for me with his novel.

I have never returned to India:  I have no desire to travel there again as a tourist, but this book brought me back.

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