SOME of the finest English-language fiction of our time is being written in Canada. Perhaps the most famous of that country's authors is Michael Ondaatje, the author of who was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. A writer whose work deserves to be as well known as Ondaatje's is Rohinton Mistry. One of the most important events in my life as a reader was my discovery of (1995), Mistry's second novel, which is set in an unnamed city that appears to be Bombay, the author's native city, in 1975. This was the year that Mistry emigrated to Toronto -- and the year that Indira Gandhi proclaimed a state of emergency, setting herself up as India's virtual dictator.
The novel has four major characters: two tanners, uncle and nephew, untouchables who flee the caste violence in their village to make a better life for themselves as tailors; a proud middle-aged widow who defies her family in her determination to remain independent; and a dreamy young man from the mountains whose family sends him to study in the city. The four of them meet on page eight, and their lives intertwine with gathering dramatic intensity as the city descends into chaos in a narrative of superb Chekhovian irony spiced with earthy wit. Imagine -- four fully formed characters! Most of the new American and British novels I see have only one character to whom things happen -- a shadowy stand-in for the author.
has a complicated, engrossing plot, not for the sake of creating suspense per se (though I found myself putting off dinner or staying up too late in order to read just one more chapter) but because life is complicated, and to chronicle four lives satisfactorily requires narrative complexity. I believed in Mistry's world as I did in those created by Dickens and Trollope, and I cared about his characters as I did about Jean Valjean. It is a passionate story, expertly told -- a nineteenth-century epic novel of conscience, written in a suburb of Toronto in the last decade of the twentieth century.
Although the vessel is a literary atavism, purely European in form, the contents are authentically Indian. In that sense, too, the book is Dickensian: Bombay is endowed with all the racy vividness of Mr. Pickwick's London and populated by a large cast of unforgettable minor characters, grotesque and humorous. Rajaram, for example, who supports himself by collecting and selling barbershop sweepings, is a man of Micawberish optimism for whom the worst disasters in life are "only small obstacles."
Like every book, A Fine Balance is flawed. In my view, Mistry does not fully justify the tragic fate that befalls one of the principal characters. His prose style is flexible and polished, but occasionally it strays into the overly ornate. Earthiness at times descends into adolescent scatology. Yet in the context of his overall achievement these are trifles, and may flow from one of Mistry's best qualities: his exuberance.
The story of how Mistry became a writer is itself like something out of a Victorian novel. After graduating from Bombay University with a degree in math and economics, he emigrated to Toronto, where he found work as an accounting clerk. He took literature courses at night school, reading Dickens, Trollope, Chekhov, Joyce -- names that would later be linked with his in reviews of his books. In 1982 his wife, a schoolteacher, drew his attention to a prestigious Canadian short-story contest called the Hart House Literary Contest. He devoted a couple of weekends to writing his first story, which won first prize. The next year he wrote another story for the same competition, and again he won the top honor. Classic in form and wry in tone, these stories tell of life in a Parsi apartment building in Bombay.
Mistry's talent was waiting for him, educated, confident, and fully formed, when he conjured it up. It's as though someone spent years listening to Arthur Rubinstein records and then, without taking piano lessons, sat down and played like Rubinstein.
More stories followed the prizewinners, and were collected in a 1987 book called (that's the name of the apartment building where the stories are set; in the United States the book is called ). Then Mistry wrote his first novel, also set in an apartment building in Bombay -- this time in 1971, when India intervened in Pakistan's civil war. (One learns a lot about recent Indian history, painlessly, by reading Mistry.) The novel revolves around the moral dilemma of a naive bank clerk who is drawn into political intrigue by an old friend who works for Indira Gandhi's secret police.