What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Wednesday, October 30, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
About once a year, I find a novel that completely blows me away, in every respect. This is that book for 2002.
It's a truly epic tale of four very ordinary people in a large Indian city, circa 1975. A young widow from a wealthy family, who refuses to live with her overbearing brother, takes in a college-age lodger to help pay the rent, and hires two lower caste tailors (who were born untouchables) so she can take in commercial sewing jobs to earn a living. This forced-by-circumstances foursome - who would in normal situations never have met and certainly would never get to know each other beyond perfunctory comments and instructions - becomes forced by chance to become a family. And it's the "chance" part that drives the epic and, ultimately, the epically tragic, dimensions of the story.
The narrative plays out against a backdrop of the social and political "Emergency" called by the corrupt government of Indira Ghandi (never referred to by name but always as the faceless "Prime Minister"), which takes on absolutely Dickensian dimensions for the story's characters. Actually, the characters are also quite Dickensian, and include a vivid cast of completely original oddballs - a legless beggar, a street performer who balances first monkeys and then children, a man who collects hair for a living, and a Beggarmaster who polices his army of (sometimes deliberately) deformed alms-collectors with a stern but oddly compassionate rule. For these folks, who it's clear are not even the worst off amid the city's crushing poverty and overcrowding, life on the best of days includes such horrors as water taps that only function at certain hours of the day, plagues of worms that invade the sidewalks, bathroom plumbing and even human intestines, and a city in which people are happy to find - after days or even weeks of searching - a well-guarded doorway to rent for a place to sleep. And the worst of days include frequent government roundups in which thousands of innocent people are swept up into trucks without warning and transported to days-long political rallies, forced labor on various "beautification" or civic improvement projects, and even involuntary sterilization operations.
One of the reviews quoted in my copy of the book likens it to both Dickens and the Russian masters, such as Tolstoy, which is probably a pretty accurate comparison. The book begins with lengthy histories of each of the main characters, detailing their childhoods, families and the circumstances that finally bring them to the big city, and to the point where their paths eventually cross those of the other central figures. Each of these stories is involving in its own right (and could be nearly a book in itself), but it's not until the four characters meet and begin working and living together that the overall narrative really takes off. Because despite all the external color and drama of the story, what really drives it, and really draws the reader in, is the way Mistry's characters develop and grow as they get to know each other, coming first to a grudging mutal respect, then friendship, and eventually even love amid their nearly impossible circumstances.
At 600 pages in paperback (with fairly small print), this is not a short book. But it is a surprisingly fast read, because the personalities and stories in it are so involving on every level. Finally, it's interesting to note that while many modern Indian authors are known for the magic realism that winds through their tales, Mistry goes about as far as possible in the opposite direction, creating a world so fully grounded in such vivid reality that it takes on a sort of magic of its own.
In short, I'm still in the thrall of this story - and likely will be for a very long time (it left me sobbing at the end) - and the best I can say about it is do not miss this book!