By Rohinton MistryKnopf, 439 pages, $26.00
Rohinton Mistry is not a household name, but it should be. The fifty-year-old Toronto resident, originally from Bombay, has long been recognized as one of the best Indian writers; he ought to be considered simply one of the best writers, Indian or otherwise, now alive.
Mistry is not prolific, but his development has been swift and steady. His first book, Swimming Lessons and Other Stories From Firozsha Baag (1987), was a wryly humorous series of interlocking tales rather in the manner of his countryman R. K. Narayan, or at least identifiable as part of the same gentle fictional tradition. His second, Such a Long Journey (1991), remained anchored in the world of his earlier stories, that of petit bourgeois Parsi families who struggle, sometimes desperately, to hold on to precarious livelihoods and dwindling status in decaying Bombay apartment blocks, and who dream of emigrating to Canada—"not just the land of milk and honey," as one of Mistry's characters, fed up with Bombay's foul aromas, puts it, but "also the land of deodorant and toiletry."
Swimming Lessons and Such a Long Journey were the work of a miniaturist, tightly contained within one claustrophobic community. Coming on the heels of these two lovely but essentially regional books, A Fine Balance (1995) was a surprise: panoramic, intensely dramatic, bursting out of the bounds Mistry had previously set for himself. It earned comparisons with the work of Dickens and Tolstoy. This high praise is not exaggerated.
The Literary Review, with some justice, called A Fine Balance "the India novel, the novel readers have been waiting for since E. M. Forster." The book is set in 1975. Forster's India, the Raj of King George V, where Britons and Indians hovered awkwardly on either side of an unbridgeable gap, has given way to the "Goonda Raj" of Indira Gandhi, where Hindus are separated from Muslims, and Parsis from Sikhs, and the immemorial laws of caste facilitate the brutal exploitation of the helpless by the powerful as the corrupt government leads the way.
A lot of nonsense has been written by literary critics, and others, about "the human spirit," tempting one to point out that the human spirit has always been remarkable more for greed and rapacity than for the exalted qualities the term usually celebrates. Yet occasionally a book rekindles our affection for the human race, and A Fine Balance is one. Although the suffering within it should be unbearable to observe, the reading experience is in fact strangely joyful. We can only reflect, with the author, that "where humans were concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure," and notice that those of Mistry's characters who retain this ability are those who have also retained their sense of humor. Mistry has a keenly developed feeling for the absurd: there is hardly a page in all of his fiction that isn't funny on one level or another. What makes the final pages of A Fine Balance heartbreaking is not that we see the protagonists' lives so hideously diminished but that in spite of it all they are still laughing.
Family Matters, Mistry's new novel, charts the effects of religious bigotry and rigid traditionalism as they work their insidious way through generations of a family. In the prime of his life Nariman Vakeel was compelled by his parents and their orthodox Parsi circle to give up the woman he loved, a non-Parsi Goan, and marry the more appropriate Yasmin, a widow with two children, Jal and Coomy. "No happiness is more lasting than the happiness that you get from fulfilling your parents' wishes," a family friend tells him, and he allows himself to believe this lie. His subsequent loveless marriage blights the family for decades.