A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Well, I have finished this gargantuan novel, and I must admit that I wish I had not embarked on it. It made me sad.
A Fine Balance is the story of four unlikely intertwined lives in Bombay. There’s Dina, a Parsee lady whose doting father dies, leaving her at the mercy of her brother, Nusswan, who get the house, money and power. There are suggestions of sexual abuse. Dina makes an unlikely “love marriage” which gives her the few happy years of her life. Her husband dies while crossing the road to buy icecream for Nusswan’s visiting children
Her school friend entrusts her beloved son Manceck to Dina, while he is in college in Bombay. Meanwhile, two “untouchable” tailors escape the violence and bullying of their village, the casual and traumatic murders of those who do not vote as the landlords tell them to, by coming to Bombay. There their hope drains away. They are evicted, the slums they sheltered in are destroyed.
Dina attempts to keep afloat in her rent-controlled apartment by signing up to produce clothes for a school friend who has an import-export business. She hires these tailors. When their houses are destroyed, they stay permanently. However, on a late evening trip, they are rounded up by the police and forcibly sterilized to keep to official quotas set by Indira Gandhi who attempted to foist Chinese style population control on India’s unruly population with results that are still the stuff of nightmare.
They return to Dina who has now lost her contract. Her lodger’s friend, Avinash who attempted to rally college students against police repressions is arrested and dies in custody. The four of them hole up together for a while. Dina’s landlord attempts to evict her, and with the help of “goondas” (India’s equivalent of the mafia) succeeds.
The novel ends with Maneck returning from the Gulf. He visits Dina who lives with her brother. She is nearly blind and is pretty much their servant. Her sister-in-law gallivants around town, while Dina does the housework. “Since you are here, why keep a servant?” her brother asks. Dina escapes from her grief in mindless domestic work for her brother. The tailors are now beggars. Avinash’s family is crushed, living with regrets,
Dina gently reproaches him for not having written. Crushed by all the sadness he sees, he steps into the path of a train.
I suppose it is a story of the invincible human spirit surviving against all odds, but I find it very sad and depressing. Life is about so much more than survival.
I long for some redeeming vision, some faith, some sense of purpose, some vision of life beyond survival. It is a very sad and depressing novel. It does paint an accurate picture of an era in India’s history which I remember well, though I was a teenager at the time. However, it was a sad and tragic era–like this book
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THE BLUE BEDSPREAD by RAJ KAMAL JHA
A very quick read, in an experimental minimalist style, mining the territory opened up by Arundhati Roy–incest and familial sexual abuse. Do these things really happen in India? I remember the shock I felt as an 18 year old when a maid working for one of the leading and pious Catholic families in town, told me her employer regularly pawed and propositioned her. What? How could it be? I thought in shock and revulsion.
“The Blue Bedspread” is a self-conscious novel, of course, though written in the clear, transparent style that conceals art. The story is told in a series of Faulknerian flashbacks. The tension and sadness build relentlessly. I read it quickly, and it maintained my interest throughout. If you are interested in style, and experimentation with it, and in unusual novels, which are, nevertheless, a quick read, this slim novel will probably be worth your while.
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The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
An old-fashioned, multi-generational novel, it tells a story, as E.M. Forster tiredly remarked. Oh yes, it tells a story.
The story is set in Burma, around the time the British ruthlessly conquered it, sending the Royal Family into exile in India. A new breed of Indian entrepreneurs flooded Burma, making fortunes in a the dazzling new world of the gentle Burmese.
The central romance of the novel is the story of a self-made entrepreneurial Indian who become a millionaire in the rapidly changing Burma–teak!! rubber!!–and a gentle Burmese girl, essentially a mystic, who rather reluctantly, becomes his wife, though she ultimately gratefully escapes into a Buddhist monastery.
The novel spans a century, through the Second World War and the brutal Japanese invasion of Burma, ending with the equally brutal and mindless coming to the power of the current junta, and a cameo of the gentle Aung San Suu Kyi.
It’s fun, it’s relaxing, you learn an enormous amount. If you have nothing better to do, forget everything and curl up with this well-spun and well-written tale–when you have a couple of days free!!