04 March 2007

Mistry's Balance

Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance is an intricate exploration of the over-lapping and interconnected lives of a number of Indians, centered around the character of Dina Dalal (née Schroff), in 1975. Mistry weaves back and forth between the then-present moment and the country’s Partition-era past, giving the history of his characters’ families and the events of their lives (and those of their parents and other ancestors), and revealing how these histories shaped the characters’ current personalities, or how certain social expectations and, even, prophecies cast lives in one direction or another.

This is a beautiful book – one of the saddest I have ever read – and Mistry’s characters, their feelings, desires, and emerging philosophies, are tenderly and delicately evoked, which only makes the sad parts of the story that much more tragic. Highly recommended.


One “character” featured throughout is the Indian government – at the time a semi-democratic, corrupt, and agonizingly bureaucratic structure. Much like the current Bush administration, the Indian government of Mistry’s story is committed to using fear as a tool for controlling the people, and to the view (with no evident understanding of the irony, as with the Bush administration) that in order to preserve democratic freedoms and liberties, many freedoms and liberties must be curtailed. Some of the most tragic or terrifying parts of the story come at the hands of government officials, because the government believes it knows best. There are shades here not only of current American political theater, but also of the more widely-known terrors conducted by “modernizing” Chinese and Soviet governments, and of the social and policing policies of the Nazis.

Towards the middle of the book, a discussion about Indian politics takes place, and it seems to me that here Mistry cuts to the core of the issues of democracy and liberty in a way that is as relevant now as it surely was in 1995, when the book was written, or in 1975, when the events of the book took place. And of course, the political discussion is also foreshadowing of some later events. The conversation is between Dina, her friend and tenant, Maneck, and Dina’s brother Nusswan, to whom Dina has come to ask for a loan. Nusswan, a rigid and buffoonish businessman, tries to engage them in a discussion about how important the current state of emergency is for Indian politics and life. Over several pages, Dina and Maneck attempt to play straight to Nusswan’s misplaced sincerity for the government policies. (This effort breaks down, when their sarcasm eventually bursts through.) Three (not contiguous) passages from this chapter stand out as excellent political commentary, and are worth repeating, as follows:

On family planning and rumors of forced sterilization:

“Mutilate. Ha ha ha,” said Nusswan, avuncular and willing to pretend it was a clever joke. “It’s all relative. At the best of times, democracy is a seesaw between complete chaos and tolerable confusion. You see, to make a democratic omelette you have to break a few democratic eggs. To fight fascism and other evil forces threatening our country, there is nothing wrong with strong measures. Especially when the foreign hand is always interfering to destabilize us. Did you know the CIA is trying to sabotage the Family Planning Programme?” (Page 366)

On censorship and the control of truthful information:

“Ah yes, yes,” said Nusswan, at last betraying impatience. “And what’s so terrible about that? It’s only because the government does not want anything published that will alarm the public. It’s temporary – so lies can be suppressed and people can regain confidence. Such steps are necessary to preserve the democratic structure. You cannot sweep clean without making the new broom dirty.” (Page 367)

On the success of the government’s emergency measures:

“The important thing,” said Nusswan, “is to consider the concrete achievements of the Emergency. Punctuality has been restored to the railway system. And as my director friend was saying, there’s also a great improvement in industrial relations. Nowadays, he can call the police in just one second, to take away the union troublemakers. A few good saltings at the police station, and they are soft as butter. My friend says production has improved tremendously. And who benefits from all this? The workers. The common people. Even the World Bank and the IMF approve of the changes. Now they are offering more loans.” (Page 367)


For more information, click here to read Wikipedia’s entry on the book (which also links to some of the Indian political history involved), here for an entry from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, and here for a few notes on the period from The Encyclopedia of World History.


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