A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

What is reality? I collect statistics for my Masters. Cases of economic violence in Indian agriculture. Break them up, analyse them, caste, crop, nature of economic relationship to the landlord, nature of employment relationship. Season, where, how, type, killed, tortured, influence of communists in the area, influence of media in the area. Turn it all into numbers and percentages. That’s what academics do. It is about being neutral. ‘Objective.’ What I was doing mattered. It would make a difference.

Then you read this.

Throughout the day, at intervals, they were flogged as they hang naked by their ankles from the branches of a banyan tree. Drifting in and out of consciousness, their screams grew faint….men urinated on the three inverted faces. Semiconscious, the parched mouths were grateful for the moisture, licking the trickle with feeble urgency….

In the evening, after the ballot boxes were taken away, burning coals were held to the three men’s genitals, then stuffed into their mouths. Their screams were heard through the village until their lips and tongues melted away. The still, silent bodies were taken down from the tree. When they began to stir, the ropes were transferred from their ankles to their necks, and the three were hanged. The bodies were displayed in the village square.

Thakur Dharamsi’s goondas, freed now from their election duties were turned loose upon the lower castes. ‘I want those achhoot jatis to learn a lesson,’ he said, distributing liquor to his men before their next assignment. ‘I want it to be like the old days, when there was respect and discipline and order in our sociey. And keep an eye on that Chamaar-tailor’s house, make sure no one gets away.’

The goondas began working their way towards the untouchable quarter. They beat up individuals at random in the streets, stripped some women, raped others, burned a few huts. News of the rampage soon spread. People hid, waiting for the storm to blow over.

‘Good’ said Thakur Dharamsi, as night fell and reports reached him of his men’s success. ‘I think they will remember this for a long time.’….

That was the end of the punishment, but not for Narayan’s family….’Catch them all – the parents, wife, children,’ he told his men. ‘See that no one escapes.’

As the goondas broke into Narayan’s house, Amba, Pyari, Savitri, andPadma screams from the porch to leave their friens alone. ‘Why are you harassing them? They have done nothing wrong!’

The women’s families pulled them back, terrified for them. Their neighbours did not dare to even look outside, cowering in their huts in shame and fear, praying that the night would pass quickly, without the violence swallowing any more innocents. When Chhotu and Dayaram tried to sneak away for help to the district thanadar, they were chased down and knifed.

Dukhi, Roopa, Radha, and the daughters were bound and dragged into the main room. ‘Two are missing,’ said Thakur Dharamsi. ‘Son and grandson.’ Someone checked around, and informed him that they were living in town. ‘Well, never mind, these five will do.’

The mutilated body was brought in and set before the captives. The room was dark. Thakur Dharamsi sent for a lamp so the family could see.

The light tore away the benevolent cloak of darkness. The naked corpse’s face was a burnt and broken blur. Only by the red birthmark on his chest could they recognise Narayan.

A long howl broke from Radha. But the sound of grief soon mingled with the family’s death agony; the house was set alight. The first flames licked at the bound flesh. The dry winds, furiously fanning the fire, showed the only spark of mercy during this night. The blaze swiftly enfolded all six of them.

Narayan is of the caste who deals with dead meat; an untouchable. His father in an act of defiance sends him to a Muslim friend in a town near their village to become a tailor, a very brave socially upward move. Narayan comes back to his village principled. He attempted to exercise his right to vote. This was the consequence. This is India.

And just as we watched the killing in Rwanda while eating our dinner, listening to the numbers mount: hundreds of thousands, no millions – shovel in some more food – essentially numbed by the largeness of the numbers, the meaninglessness of them; just as Hotel Rwanda, referring to a few people, a family, a piece of fiction, meant so much more than the statistics, so too this story, a piece of fiction, means more than all the figures I could collect and transform into graphs. What I was doing, in retrospect, was crap. I turned the vilest suffering into neutral numbers and I was proud to have done so. That’s academia for you. A Fine Balance is the reality, the numbers are nothing.

The title might refer to all sorts of things, but for me most importantly the fine balance in relations between people, the ways in which exploitation take place, the ways in which sentiment might overcome that. This book is about a woman who is early deprived of proper education which would give her independence. She marries the love of her life, he dies not long after and although following a proper period she becomes involved with another man – a nice man who will make life comfortable for her – she finds it impossible to betray the memory of her husband. She chooses aloneness and independence, but at best her life is on the boundary of genteel poverty. Any time it could catapult down from where it teeters on that edge.

So when she decides to employ two tailors to help her struggling business making clothes, we see what her situation as she perceives it does to the nature of her feelings for them. She is constantly concerned that they will attempt to take advantage of her and her consequent hardness makes us feel not only sorry for the tailors, the victims of her toughness, but also sorry for her as it isn’t really her nature. Still, there we have it, as we were talking about elsewhere on goodreads recently. How does ‘feminism’ fit in with what I want to call ‘peopleism’? This woman’s anxiety to protect herself makes her perpetuate the dreadful, dreadful way society at large treats the tailors. When her boarder, an upperclass Indian boy, sees these tailors as his friends, over and over she berates him for it. Eventually she is broken down and her shame at how she is treating people overcomes her anxiety to be ‘feminist’.

Two men have a discussion on the etiquette of dousing a wife in kerosene and setting her alight vs. throwing acid in her face: which does one do when? Just a casual conversation between a chap in a cab and his driver. Every hour or two a woman in India is burned alive by her husband and his family. Which of these two statements, the fictional discussion or the stat offends you more?

A reference to children being remodelled. You pass over it, yet suddenly you realise what it means. Young fit children who are destitute have no use as beggars, so the chap in charge of them remodels the children to make them income-bearing. Perhaps their noses or ears or limbs will be cut off. Sometimes it is done with a view to the choreography of a tableaux. ‘Hmm. If I put a child with no nose with a man who has…’

The women-folk of the Harijan tailor Narayan chase away their social inferiors who come to him looking for clothes. Who is lower than the untouchable? Within that concept the dalits have their own stratification so that even within the lowest of the low, some are lower. Narayan’s relatives are all traditionally untouchable because they deal with dead animals. They may feel quite superior to those whose lot in life is tied to sewerage. Narayan chastises the women. Above them, upper caste women despise Narayan’s female relatives just as they despise the few people caste below them. It is all very well to say all these women deserve a special place in hell, as some would have it, women not helping each other, but these women all have shit lives and they are trying to survive. There is the ‘feminism’ of wealthy first-world white women trying to get an extra week’s paid maternity leave or some other nicety in life and there is the brutality of life for most women in the world.

The hero of this story maintains a constant struggle to keep her precarious independence. She’d rather be horrifically poor by our standards than live with or be supported by her brother who is wealthy. And yet, by the standards of the tailors in her employ she is very wealthy and exploiting them. Both these things are true. She is poor and wealthy, nasty, cold and kind.

This book should make you ashamed to be a wealthy first-world person who thinks voting is a right not a duty. Fortunately it did not win the Booker Prize.

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