Friday, July 25, 2014

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

In the 1970’s India suffered through a period of social upheaval and political oppression. Prime Minister Indira Ghandi imposed a State of Emergency on the country. She did this mainly to retain political power (ruthlessly purging and arresting opponents and other government officials.) She also tried to forcibly modernize the country. Her thugs, enforcing her policies, inflicted misery on the poorest citizens. Often they were forcibly rounded up and bussed to political rallies to increase crowd size. Men were kidnapped off the streets and subjected to involuntary vasectomies in appalling conditions. People were left homeless and even killed in a careless, poorly-planned effort to eradicate slums.  This is the society in which the four protagonists of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, struggle to survive.
Dina, a widow resisting remarriage, tries to retain her independence and her own home by starting a dress-making business. To this end, she hires two itinerant tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om.  They belong to the Untouchable caste and are fleeing violence in their own state. Dina also takes a boarder, Maleck, a young student from the north of the country. At first the arrangement works for all involved. Ishvar and Om are happy to have work; Maleck is pleased to have a place to live. And Dina is thrilled to have established a successful business that enables her to maintain her independence.  But their little haven of tranquility is soon disrupted when corrupt and powerful politics interfere with their daily lives. Eventually Maleck, unable to coexist with the pervasive violence in Indian life, leaves the country. But Dina, Ishvar and Om cannot leave. They must learn to accept the harsh circumstances of their lives. Despite their suffering, including hunger, homelessness, illness, and eventually, forced sterilization, the two tailors retain a heart-breaking acceptance of whatever hardships they must endure.  And Dina never allows disappointment destroy her sense of decency. They have found the fine balance needed to survive in Indira Ghandi’s India.