Some readers have drawn comparisons between “A Fine Balance” and some of Dickens’ works. Others have invoked Shakespeare, notably King Lear — and lines from Macbeth certainly come to mind: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” But while there are elements in the book to support those suggestions, I find myself dissatisfied with such comparisons; and with the novel itself.
Mistry set out to depict a great human tragedy, or more accurately a series of little tragedies that blend into one another through several generations, reminiscent of Hugo’s “Les Miserables”. Regrettably, a much greater tragedy got in the way and galloped roughshod over the individual human story of his unfortunate protagonists: It is the tragedy of India itself, overwhelmed by the burden of its own history and falling victim to the corruption, arrogance and hegemony of its own ruling classes. Throughout the book, I was reminded again and again that referring to India as ‘the world’s largest democracy’ is a sick joke.
This is also a cautionary tale: it foretells what will surely become of a people who lack the courage, determination, foresight and capacity to hold their leaders accountable. It’s a depiction of what happens when elected leaders become masters instead of servants of the people. It begins with the subornment of the democratic process itself, hijacked by money, lies and power, manipulated to ensure the installation of figureheads who are beholden to the rich and powerful, intent upon subverting the mechanisms of laws, courts, security forces, taxation, regulations and patronage in order to transfer power from the needy many to the privileged few. We are witnessing that process in several of today’s democracies and it’s a discouraging sight: once despotism gains a grip on a nation, it becomes impossible to escape from it because all of the mechanisms that were intended to protect individual rights and maintain the rule of law have been coopted. Anyone who doesn’t perceive this pernicious cycle at work in the USA ought to read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer!
In the honorable tradition of Shakespeare, Mistry offers us moments of humor, mostly of a dark, ironic variety to alleviate the pain — episodes such as the railway latrine, the farcical machinations of the ‘Beggarmaster’ or the adolescent fumblings of the hormone-driven Om and Maneck. But such moments only serve to further highlight the dominant theme: the malignant destiny that grips the tailors whether in their ancestral village or in the city; and the ongoing struggle of Dina and her little ménage. In the end, I was reminded of the final scene in Mussorgsky’s operatic masterpiece “Boris Godunov” when the fool laments the sad destiny of the Russian people. It is in this manner that Rohinton Mistry departs from a Shakespearean ethos and from the humanism of Victor Hugo, leaving us with no hope of rescue or whisper of redemption.
I applaud this book as a fine piece of literature and a valiant attempt to expose the ugly truth about despotism and the abuse of power. Regrettably, the ‘fine balance’ between pragmatism and despair that Mistry and his protagonists sought has not been achieved; the barbarians are not at the gate, they rule the palace and the best chance for the underlings to survive is to avoid being noticed.
A challenging and very though-provoking read, but one that I cannot claim to have enjoyed. I now plan to take a deep breath and read a good wholesome murder mystery to make me feel more hopeful for humanity.