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A Fine Balanceby Rohinton Mistry
For a while it seemed that novels set in India were all the rage. My favorite is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. His massive tome ranges across the vast chasms of that giant subcontinent, all from the cramped apartment of Dina Dalal. Through her eyes, along with those of her two impoverished tailors and her bright if unambitious nephew, we are provided a glimpse into every corner of Indian society. Mistry describes the absurdities and petty prejudices held by many Indians in a way that would make Flannery O'Connor or Carson McCullers proud.
Synopses & Reviews
With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers — a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village — will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.
As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.
"Those who continue to harp on the decline of the novel . . . ought to consider Rohinton Mistry. He needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is magical." The New York Times
"Astonishing. . . . A rich and varied spectacle, full of wisdom and laughter and the touches of the unexpectedly familiar through which literature illuminates life." Wall Street Journal
"A serious and important work . . . the product of high intelligence and passionate conviction." New York Review of Books
"Monumental. . . . Few have caught the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India, the unaccountable crookedness and sweetness, as well as Mistry." Pico Iyer, Time
One: City By the Sea
Dina Dalal seldom indulged in looking back at her life with regret or bitterness, or questioning why things had turned out the way they had, cheating her of the bright future everyone had predicted for her when she was in school, when her name was still Dina Shroff. And if she did sink into one of these rare moods, she quickly swam out of it. What was the point of repeating the story over and over and over, she asked herself--it always ended the same way; whichever corridor she took, she wound up in the same room.
Dina's father had been a doctor, a GP with a modest practice who followed the Hippocratic oath somewhat more passionately than others of his profession. During the early years of Dr. Shroff's career, his devotion to his work was diagnosed, by peers, family members, and senior physicians, as typical of youthful zeal and vigour. "How refreshing, this enthusiasm of the young," they smiled, nodding sagely, confident that time would douse the fires of idealism with a healthy dose of cynicism and family responsibilities.
But marriage, and the arrival of a son, followed eleven years later by a daughter, changed nothing for Dr. Shroff. Time only sharpened the imbalance between his fervour to ease suffering and his desire to earn a comfortable income.
"How disappointing," said friends and relatives, shaking their heads. "Such high hopes we had for him. And he keeps slaving like a clerk, like a fanatic, refusing to enjoy life. Poor Mrs. Shroff. Never a vacation, never a party--no fun at all in her existence."
At fifty-one, when Most GPS would have begun considering options like working half-time, hiring an inexpensive junior, or even selling the practice in favour of early retirement, Dr. Shroff had neither the bank balance nor the temperament to permit such indulgences. Instead, he volunteered to lead a campaign of medical graduates bound for districts in the interior. There, where typhoid and cholera, unchallenged by science or technology, were still reaping their routine harvest of villagers, Dr. Shroff would try to seize the deadly sickles or, at the very least, to blunt them.
But Mrs. Shroff undertook a different sort of campaign: to dissuade her husband from going into what she felt were the jaws of certain death. She attempted to coach Dina with words to sway her father. After all, Dina, at twelve, was Daddy's darling. Mrs. Shroff knew that her son, Nusswan, could be of no help in this enterprise. Enlisting him would have ruined any chance of changing her husband's mind.
The turning point in the father-and-son relationship had come seven years ago, on Nusswan's sixteenth birthday. Uncles and aunts had been invited to dinner, and someone said, "Well, Nusswan, you will soon be studying to become a doctor, just like your father."
"I don't want to be a doctor," Nusswan answered. "I'll be going into business-import and export."
Some of the uncles and aunts nodded approvingly. Others recoiled in mock horror, turning to Dr. Shroff. "Is this true? No father-son partnership?"
"Of course it's true," he said. "My children are free to do whatever they please."
But five-year-old Dina had seen the hurt on her father's face before he could hide it. She ran to him and clambered onto his lap. "Daddy, I want to be a doctor, just like you, when I grow up."
Everyone laughed and applauded, and said, Smart little girl, knows how to get what she wants. Later, they whispered that the son was obviously not made of the same solid stuff as the father-no ambition, wouldn't amount to much.
Dina had repeated her wish in the years to come, continuing to regard her father as some kind of god who gave people good health, who struggled against illness, and who, sometimes, succeeded in temporarily thwarting death. And Dr. Shroff was delighted with his bright child. On parents' night at the convent school, the principal and teachers always had the highest praise for her. She would succeed if she wanted to, Dr. Shroff knew it for certain.
Mrs. Shroff also knew, for certain, that her daughter was the one to recruit in the campaign against Dr. Shroff's foolish philanthropic plan of working in remote, Godforsaken villages. But Dina refused to cooperate; she did not approve of devious means to keep her beloved father home.
Then Mrs. Shroff resorted to other methods, using not money or his personal safety or his family to persuade him, for she knew these would fail hopelessly. Instead, she invoked his patients, claiming he was abandoning them, old and frail and helpless. "What will they do if you go so far away? They trust you and rely on you. How can you be so cruel? You have no idea how much you mean to them."
"No, that is not the point," said Dr. Shroff. He was familiar with the anfractuous arguments that her love for him could prompt her to wield. Patiently he explained there were GPS galore in the city who could take care of the assorted aches and pains-where he was going, the people had no one. He comforted her that it was only a temporary assignment, hugging and kissing her much more than was usual for him. "I promise to be back soon," he said. "Before you even grow used to my absence."
But Dr. Shroff could not keep his promise. Three weeks into the medical campaign he was dead, not from typhoid or cholera, but from a cobra's bite, far from the lifesaving reach of antivenins.
Mrs. Shroff received the news calmly. People said it was because she was a doctor's wife, more familiar with death than other mortals. They reasoned that Dr. Shroff must have often carried such tidings to her regarding his own patients, thus preparing her for the inevitable.
When she took brisk charge of the funeral arrangements, managing everything with superb efficiency, people wondered if there was not something a little abnormal about her behaviour. Between disbursing funds from her handbag for the various expenses, she accepted condolences, comforted grieving relatives, tended the oil lamp at the head of Dr. Shroff's bed, washed and ironed her white sari, and made sure there was a supply of incense and sandalwood in the house. She personally instructed the cook about the special vegetarian meal for the next day.
After the full four days of death ceremonies, Dina was still crying. Mrs. Shroff, who was busy tallying the prayer-bungalow charges from the Towers of Silence, said briskly, "Come, my daughter, be sensible now. Daddy would not like this." So Dina did her best to control herself.
Then Mrs. Shroff continued absentmindedly, writing out the cheque. "You could have stopped him if you wanted. He would have listened to you," she said.
Dina's sobs burst out with renewed intensity. In addition to the grief for her father, her tears now included anger towards her mother, even hatred. It would take her a few months to understand that there was no malice or accusation contained in what had been said, just a sad and simple statement of fact as seen by her mother.
Six months after Dr. Shroff's death, after being the pillar that everyone could lean on, Mrs. Shroff gradually began to crumble. Retreating from daily life, she took very little interest in the running of her household or in her own person.
It made little difference to Nusswan, who was twenty-three and busy planning his own future. But Dina, at twelve, could have done with a parent for a few more years. She missed her father dreadfully. Her mother's withdrawal made it much worse.
Nusswan Shroff had earned his own living as a businessman for two years prior to his father's death. He was still single, living at home, saving his money while searching for a suitable flat and a suitable wife. With his father's passing and his mother's reclusion, he realized that the pursuit of a flat was unnecessary, and a wife, urgent.
He now assumed the role of head of the family, and legal guardian to Dina. All their relatives agreed this was as it should be. They praised his selfless decision, admitting they had been wrong about his capabilities. He also took over the family finances, promising that his mother and sister would want for nothing; he would look after them out of his own salary. But, even as he spoke, he knew there was no need for this. The money from the sale of Dr. Shroff's dispensary was sufficient.
Nusswan's first decision as head of the family was to cut back on the hired help. The cook, who came for half the day and prepared the two main meals, was kept on; Lily, the live-in servant, was let go. "We cannot continue in the same luxury as before," he declared. "I just can't afford the wages."
Mrs. Shroff expressed some doubt about the change. "Who will do the cleaning? My hands and feet don't work like before."
"Don't worry, Mamma, we will all share it. You can do easy things, like dusting the furniture. We can wash our own cups and saucers, surely. And Dina is a young girl, full of energy. It will be good for her, teach her how to look after a home."
"Yes, maybe you are right," said Mrs. Shroff, vaguely convinced of the need for money-saving measures.
But Dina knew there was more to it. The week before, while passing the kitchen on her way to the wc well past midnight, she had noticed her brother with the ayah: Lily sitting on one end of the kitchen table, her feet resting on the edge; Nusswan, his pyjamas around his ankles, stood between Lily's thighs, clasping her hips to him. Dina watched his bare buttocks with sleepy curiosity, then crept back to bed without using the toilet, her cheeks flushed. But she must have lingered a moment too long, for Nusswan had seen her.
Not a word was spoken about it. Lily departed (with a modest bonus, unbeknownst to Mrs. Shroff), tearfully declaring that she would never find as nice a family to work for ever again. Dina felt sorry for her, and also despised her.
Then the new household arrangement got under way. Everyone made an honest effort. The experiment in self-reliance seemed like fun. "It's a little like going camping," said Mrs. Shroff.
"That's the spirit," said Nusswan.
With the passing of days, Dina's chores began to increase. As a token of his participation, Nusswan continued to wash his cup, saucer, and breakfast plate before going to work. Beyond that, he did nothing.
One morning, after swallowing his last gulp of tea, he said, "I'm very late today, Dina. Please wash my things."
"I'm not your servant! Wash your own dirty plates!" Weeks of pent-up resentment came gushing. "You said we would each do our own work! All your stinking things you leave for me!"
"Listen to the little tigress," said Nusswan, amused.
"You mustn't speak like that to your big brother," chided Mrs. Shroff gently. ";Remember, we must share and share alike."
"He's cheating! He doesn't do any work! I do everything!"
Nusswan hugged his mother: "Bye-bye, Mamma," and gave Dina a friendly pat on the shoulder to make up. She shrank from him. "The tigress is still angry," he said and left for the office.
Mrs. Shroff tried to soothe Dina, promising to discuss it later with Nusswan, maybe convince him to hire a part-time ayah, but her resolve melted within hours. Matters continued as before. As weeks went by, instead of restoring fairness in the household, she began turning into one of the chores on her daughter's ever-growing list.
Now Mrs. Shroff had to be told what to do. When food was placed before her, she ate it, though it did her little good, for she kept losing weight. She had to be reminded to bathe and change her clothes. If toothpaste was squeezed out and handed to her on the brush, she brushed her teeth. For Dina, the most unpleasant task was helping her mother wash her hair-it fell out in clumps on the bathroom floor, and more followed when she combed it for her.
Once every month, Mrs. Shroff attended her husband's prayers at the fire-temple. She said it gave her great comfort to hear the elderly Dustoor Framji's soothing tones supplicating for her husband's soul. Dina missed school to accompany her mother, worried about her wandering off somewhere.
Before commencing the ceremony, Dustoor Framji unctuously shook Mrs. Shroff's hand and gave Dina a prolonged hug of the sort he reserved for girls and young women. His reputation for squeezing and fondling had earned him the title of Dustoor Daab-Chaab, along with the hostility of his colleagues, who resented not so much his actions but his lack of subtlety, his refusal to disguise his embraces with fatherly or spiritual concern. They feared that one day he would go too far, drool over his victim or something, and disgrace the fire-temple.
Dina squirmed in his grasp as he patted her head, rubbed her neck, stroked her back and pressed himself against her. He had a very short beard, stubble that resembled flakes of grated coconut, and it scraped her cheeks and forehead. He released her just when she had summoned enough courage to tear her trapped body from his arms.
After the fire-temple, for the rest of the day at home Dina tried to make her mother talk, asking her advice about housework or recipes, and when that failed, about Daddy, and the days of their newlywed lives. Faced with her mother's dreamy silences, Dina felt helpless. Soon, her concern for her mother was tempered by the instinct of youth which held her back-she would surely receive her portion of grief and sorrow in due course, there was no need to take on the burden prematurely.
And Mrs. Shroff spoke in monosyllables or sighs, staring into Dina's face for answers. As for dusting the furniture, she could never proceed beyond wiping the picture frame containing her husband's graduation photograph. She spent most of her time gazing out the window.
Nusswan preferred to regard his mother's disintegration as a widow's appropriate renunciation, wherein she was sloughing off the dross of life to concentrate on spiritual matters. He focused his attention on the raising of Dina. The thought of the enormous responsibility resting on his shoulders worried him ceaselessly.
He had always perceived his father to be a strict disciplinarian; he had stood in awe of him, had even been a little frightened of him. If he was to fill his father's shoes, he would have to induce the same fear in others, he decided, and prayed regularly for courage and guidance in his task. He confided to the relatives-the uncles and aunts-that Dina's defiance, her stubbornness, was driving him crazy, and only the Almighty's help gave him the strength to go forward in his duty.
His sincerity touched them. They promised to pray for him too. "Don't worry, Nusswan, everything will be all right. We will light a lamp at the fire-temple."
Heartened by their support, Nusswan began taking Dina with him to the fire-temple once as week. There, he thrust a stick of sandalwood in her hand and whispered fiercely in her ear, "Now pray properly--ask Dadaji to make you a good girl, ask Him to make you obedient."
While she bowed before the sanctum, he travelled along the outer wall hung with pictures of various dustoors and high priests. He glided from display to display, stroking the garlands, hugging the frames, kissing the glass, and ending with the very tall picture of Zarathustra to which he glued his lips for a full minute. Then, from the vessel of ashes placed in the sanctum's doorway, he smeared a pinch on his forehead, another bit across the throat, and undid his top two shirt buttons to rub a fistful over his chest.
Like talcum powder, thought Dina, watching from the corner of her eye, from her bowed position, straining to keep from laughing. She did not raise her head till he had finished his antics.
"Did you pray properly?" he demanded when they were outside.
"Good. Now all the bad thoughts will leave your head, you will feel peace and quiet in your heart."
About the Author
Rohinton Mistry was born in Bombay and now lives near Toronto. His first novel, Such a Long Journey, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and received, among other awards, the Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book of the Year. A Fine Balance is his second novel, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction, the Giller Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize as well as a Booker Prize finalist. Mistry is also the author of Swimming Lessons, a collection of short stories.
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