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Sunday, January 17, 2010

"a fine balance between hope and despair"- WB Yeats

During the Christmas season I read “A Fine Balance”. It first appeared in 1995, the second novel by Rohinton Mistry. Mistry lives in Canada, but was born and raised in Mumbai, India. The story is set in Mumbai, and occurs between 1975 and 1977. In this period the government of India responded to what was called “The Emergency” with the suspension of certain constitutional rights, and “crackdowns” on those perceived as being in opposition.

The story focuses on the lives of 4 unlikely housemates, who seem to be thrown together by monumental forces. For a brief time, these characters experience a sense of community, and happiness. But all around them there is tremendous difficulty and misery.

The characters in “A Fine Balance” exist in a well-rendered, complex setting. Their lives, the forces at work around them, and the choices available to them are clearly shaped by the long history of this sub-continent. I hesitate to draw any simple morals, because I don’t think that would do justice to the scope of Mistry’s work.

But having said that, I would also observe that the characters who are portrayed as having wealth, power, and privilege, are essentially unhappy. The characters who seem most able to “maintain a fine balance between hope and despair”, are the ones the world would see as the poorest, the weakest, and the most vulnerable.

In the end, the character who had the most “promise” has given up, and two “untouchables”, who can no longer work, and now eke out a subsistence as beggars, are still able to find joy and meaning in their days. That gave me a lot to think about over the holidays.