In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…
Rohinton Mistry has the distinction of seeing each of his three novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He is a literary novelist par excellence, a chronicler of Indian life whose wonderful prose and acerbic eye have incited controversy, soul-searching and literary delight in equal measure.
A Fine Balance was published in 1995,going on to win the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. (Later it would also become an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection.)
The book is set in “an unidentified city” in India – one that bears a remarkable resemblance to Bombay – opening in the 1970s during the turmoil of the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency – a suspension of the Indian Constitution after the then Indian Prime Minister was accused of political chicanery. Defying a court order calling for her resignation, Gandhi instead used the Emergency to throw her opponents in jail, as well as a slew of others who didn’t quite see the world in the same way as she did – activists, intellectuals, journalists, even students.
To make matters worse, she and her son, the now notorious Sanjay Gandhi, launched a forced sterilization campaign that preyed upon the poorer sections of Indian society, causing irretrievable damage to tens of thousands of Indian citizens and serving up a harsh political lesson that has reverberated down the ages, hampering subsequent attempts at checking India’s population growth.
Mistry’sbook focuses on four characters hailing from across a spectrum of backgrounds – Dina Dalal, Ishvar Darji, his nephew Omprakash Darji, and Maneck Kohlah.
College student Kohlah rents a room in the house of Dina Dalal, a 40-ish widowed seamstress. Dina’s husband died young and since then she has lived a life of carefully repressed emotions. Dina makes ends meet by taking on tailoring work. As the work mounts up, she hires itinerant village tailor Ishvar Darji and his firebrand nephew Omprakash, whose father, a village “Untouchable”, was murdered as punishment for daring to cross caste boundaries in a bid to better his station. Omprakash seethes with resentment, class resentment, caste resentment, a resentment that captures the bitterness felt by hundreds of millions across India’s starkly divided society.
Mistry stitches together a vast narrative that seeks to highlight the travails of India’s poor, focusing on the way they are forced to navigate penury, corruption, bureaucracy, and outright bigotry.
In a 2011 Guardian review, Hannah Booth was effusive in her praise for the novel, commenting on how it brought to life so vividly the India that she had recently visited. This quote, in particular, I found very evocative of my own time in India: “The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limits.”
Some have accused the novel of meandering, of failing to bring together the strands of its protagonists’ lives in a satisfying way. For me, this vast, intricate novel is worth reading simply for the preponderance of fine detail and the warmth and compassion Mistry brings to his characters and their predicaments.
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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here
And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here