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.
The distortion of the religious impulse into an instrument of prejudice and exclusion propels the novel and its characters; indeed, everywhere in Mistry's work a retreat into ritual indicates spiritual impoverishment. In Family Matters, Parsi fundamentalism wrecks the family's harmony and pollutes the very air at Nariman's flat in the ironically misnamed Chateau Felicity apartment building, while beyond Chateau Felicity, Hindu fundamentalism, in the form of Shiv Sena thugs, wantonly ruins the lives of thousands. The thoughtful Nariman is especially wary of the threat posed by zealotry: he admonishes Coomy, for example, for referring to acts of God, observing that she "was getting into the bad habit of burdening God with altogether too much responsibility: 'And that is good for neither God nor us.'"
One of the strongest features of Mistry's novels—and the reason he is so reminiscent of the great nineteenth-century writers—is his use, sometimes audacious, of big metaphors. Family Matters and A Fine Balance are masterly in the way they imbue certain lives, or deaths, with meaning. Nariman's wife and his lover, for instance, are perversely joined in death as they were, much against their wills, during their lives. One of Mistry's most memorable characters is the powerful Beggarmaster in A Fine Balance, a terrifying fusion of cruelty and compassion. Beggarmaster literally buys beggars, often children; sends them to doctors for "professional modifications" (limbs amputated, eyes put out); and sets them up on street corners, then claiming a cut of their take. A figure of nightmare, in fact; yet he cares for his beggars with the utmost vigilance, and functions as an honorable protector and insurer in an anarchic world where the police have become more threat than protector. Beggarmaster's star beggar is Shankar, a legless, fingerless man who propels himself around on a rolling platform. In a plot twist that only Mistry—or Dickens—could have come up with, Beggarmaster and Shankar turn out to be half brothers. The revelation of this fact, and the striking, even emblematic, manner of the two men's deaths, are unforgettable.
Major writers differ from minor ones, even great minor ones, in their ability to handle the big questions: death, family, the passing of time, the inevitability of loss, God or the corresponding God-shaped hole. Mistry handles all of them in an accomplished style entirely his own. He also manages, with gentle insistence, to focus our attention on what we have and what we are constantly in the process of losing. Children leave; families disintegrate; love slips away; moments of happiness, too often unrecognized at the time, vanish into the past. Material well-being is fragile: as Beggarmaster pointedly remarks, "People forget how vulnerable they are despite their shirts and shoes and briefcases, how this hungry and cruel world could strip them, put them in the same position as my beggars." Immaterial possessions are just as evanescent; memory itself fragments and fades. "Losing, and losing again," one of Mistry's characters insists, "is the very basis of the life process, till all we are left with is the bare essence of human existence." Mistry's work illustrates the comment only too effectively; and yet this essence, seen through his eyes, is still beautiful.