Friday, February 20, 2009

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Julius C├Žsar. Act iv. Sc. 3.

A Fine Balance is a spiritual book. It seems unlikely that the author intended the book to be a spiritual book and might not recognize it as such, nor would those who have reviewed the book. The author intended to write a book describing the devastating effects of some of the worst abuses of the “State of Internal Emergency” in India during the rule of Indira Gandhi. In some ways, the author succeeded in describing the corruption and brutality of that period. The book is unrelenting in describing acts of brutality that were administered on the poorest, weakest citizens of India both by the Ghandi government and by those who were empowered by the government. The book is extremely well written – so much so that we come to care deeply about the people who suffer so desperately. Indeed, the story is so depressing that it is very unpleasant to read.

However, the principal story of this book is about omitted opportunities, wrong choices, and the misery that ensued in the voyage of life. It seems doubtful that the author intended to write a spiritual book; he probably wrote a spiritual book subconsciously.

The story has four protagonists. Dina is in her 40’s and widowed. She lives alone and struggles to survive without asking for help from her elder brother, who she dislikes. Maneck is in his first year of college, from a good family, owners of a general store in the hill country, and whose mother is an old school friend of Dina's. Ishvar and his nephew Om are tailors from a small village and members of the untouchable caste. Maneck and the two tailors meet on the train on their way to Dina’s house, where Maneck has rented a room while in college, and where the two tailors hope to find work from Dina making dresses for five rupees per dress. The story describes how the four struggle together at first, and then come to care for each other deeply.

As the story unfolds, we learn the backgrounds of the principal characters, and how each came to be in the tiny run-down apartment. Dina was the daughter of a physician, a very bright girl who was also very headstrong and her father's pet. As a girl, her mother implored her to persuade her father not to go into a dangerous situation, but she refused. Her father went and became ill and died. She was not willing to accept direction from her elder brother, and she neglected her schoolwork. After she made failing marks in school, her brother refused to pay for her to continue, and she did not finish her basic education, much less college. She eventually married a very poor man who was killed in an accident after they were married only three years. Her decision not to study and become educated led her to a life of poverty and misery.

Like Dina, Maneck was given every opportunity to succeed. His parents loved him and wanted him to be educated. They sent him first to boarding school and then to college. He rebelled first at being sent to boarding school and then to college. While in college, he became friends with a young man who was a student political organizer against the government. During his year in college, he refused to study, and because of poor marks, was not accepted for further study. He accepted a job in air conditioning maintenance in Dubai, where he was miserable.

As boys, Ishvar and his brother Narayan were sent by their father away from home to a nearby town to learn to be tailors. Later, Narayan returned to his village and became very successful as a tailor. However, he defied the most powerful man in the village and was killed, along with his wife and three daughters as well as his mother and father. Ishvar and Om escaped death only because they were working in the nearby town. Later, when the tailoring business in the town failed, they went to seek work in the city. For a time, they were successful and happy with Dina, but Ishvar insisted that he and Om return to their hometown to find a wife for Om. While there, Om defied the same powerful man who had killed his father. When local police rounded up adults for forced sterilization, Ishvar and Om were given an opportunity to escape, but refused. As a result, they were sterilized, but then the powerful man insisted that Om be castrated as well, ending his chances of finding a wife. As a result of unsanitary conditions, Ishvar developed gangrene and had his legs amputated.

Thus, we see that the author created a story in which each of these four protagonists was actually responsible for his own suffering. In each case, the character made choices that led to his downfall. Each one did so knowingly after repeated warnings. In each case, the character knew at the time of his action that he was going against powerful, even brutal forces, and yet he did so anyway. In each case, the character was warned of the consequences of his action, as were others in the story who were not the principal characters, but who also suffered from the actions of evil forces. So while the author seems to have intended to describe the brutality of the Gandhi government, he actually described the consequences of defying the power prevailing in their lives at the time.

In the end, Dina was forced to move into the home of her brother and his wife and became their servant. Ishvar and Om were forced to become beggars, sneaking to the home where Dina lived where she fed them one meal each day. Maneck became despondent with life – the death of his father, learning of the death of his college friend, the political activist, and learning of the misery of Dina and Ishvar and Om. He killed himself. Dina and Ishvar and Om kept surviving somehow, kept alive by learning to maintain "a fine balance" between hope and despair. However, the book provides no "balance"; there is no hope, only despair.

Thus, this book reinforced a basic law of nature, the law of life – even though we do not agree with the rules laid down for us, we must accept those rules or face the consequences of our actions. In this story, the consequences were terrible and life-long. The characters knew in advance that they would face terrible consequences of their actions, yet they acted anyway. The suffering that they experienced was determined by their own actions; they invited the brutality that was wielded on them. They asked for it, and they got it.

The spiritual lesson is that we can try to move forward in life, we can strive for a better life, but we must act within the bounds that are laid out for us, or we will face terrible consequences. I am reminded of the Nelson Mandela quote regarding his sister – when she chose not to be educated, she chose a life of slavery. Her own choice led to her suffering. How often we see this law played out in life; how often we see people have much, but throw it away through unwillingness to accept existing rules.

Because this book had received such great reviews and such high praise, including being a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and also being included in Oprah’s Book Club, I decided to read it. If I had read the reviews more carefully, I would not have done so. Although I found this book terribly sad, terribly depressing, I also found the four principal characters to be the cause of their own misery. In life we are shown the path to happiness, and we are shown the path to misery. We must choose which path to take. We must live by the rules of life and be happy, or we will surely suffer and die by those rules. That is the law of life. Indeed, the title of this book could well have been, "Sad Consequences of the Law of Life".

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