The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

Jan 22, 2001

Rohinton Mistrey has written a novel about India during the Emergency Period of dictatorship imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. India is a country of a billion people which is often portrayed as the world's biggest democracy. It is true that India has many political parties and they alternate in power in the government of the countries and various states. But the reality of India is far from democratic. This novel gives a vivid feel of this reality.

The novel revolves around an older man Om, and his nephew Prakash. Om and Prakash's father grew up as "untouchables" in a small village of India. When India obtained its independence in 1948, caste distinctions formally were abolished. Castes were rigid occupational groups that people were born into and couldn't move out of. The new government of India said caste distinctions were illegal, but they continued to exist in reality. The two brothers were born into an untouchable caste that skinned animals and tanned leather. The upper caste landlords in the village beat up the untouchables in order to keep them subordinate. They were beaten when their "unclean eyes" met the eyes of an upper caste Brahmin, when they walked on the wrong side of a temple road and supposedly defiled it, or when they went too near a prayer meeting, overhearing the sacred text.

Prakash's father dares to ask for his own election ballot, instead of just giving his fingerprint and allowing the landlord to vote for him. In response, the upper caste landlord sends his goons to whip the father, urinate on him, put burning coals put on his genitals, and then stuff the coals in his mouth. The goons then go on a rampage beating up untouchables at random in their quarter. The family of Prakash's father is pursued, his two grandchildren are knifed to death, and then the house of the family is set on fire, burning up the six in it.

In a nearby city, Om takes refuge where he finds assistance from a Muslim friend from the village. He comments that he has more in common with the Muslim than with the wealthy of his own religion. But soon the city is engulfed in violence between Hindus and Muslims. We get a feel of what's behind it. "A slumlord called Thorkay, who controls everything in this area –country liquid, hashish, bhung. And when there are riots, he decides who gets burned and who survives."

Om and his nephew can find housing only in a slum erected illegally on government land. The entire government is involved in bribery. The slum lord bribes the police, water inspector and electricity officer to allow it to operate. The police damage a taxi because the driver is late with his weekly bribe.

A large picture of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi hangs in a store window, "That's the goddess of protection. Her blessing is a business necessity. Her presence keeps my windows from being smashed and my shop from being burned." Om and Prakash, along with tens of thousands of other poor people, are rounded up on their way to work, forced to get in buses and then wait in the hot sun at a political rally until the Prime Minister descends in a helicopter to give her speech. They are told they will get four rupees for attending, along with tea and a small cake. They will lose 30 rupees by missing work for the day. After the long day they receive three rupees –one was taken out for the tea and cake, even when they didn't get it because it ran out!

The uncle and nephew get caught up in "democratic" India's family planning program of sterilization. The government decided to pay the patient to have the operation, but the money goes to the police boss of the area. Government workers are forced to produce two or three people from the village for sterilization each month, otherwise they aren't paid. So the upper caste political boss has the school teachers, tax collectors, and food inspectors pay him a bribe. Whoever pays the most is allowed to be considered finished with the round-up for sterilization that month. As the government gets more insistent on sterilizations, finally all the men in the village are rounded up by force to be sterilized. When a doctor hesitates to sterilize a young man without children, all it takes is a whisper from a political boss threatening his job. Prakash had returned to the village to get married, but the political boss has his testicles cut out.

Om and Prakash become beggars. We learn about the beggar master who beggars pay for protection, who in turn bribes the police, and who protects the beggars against attackers and thugs. A family sells their ugly daughter to be a beggar. Numerous beggars have their deformities worsened to turn in more money.

All this is told through vivid characters we get to know. We meet beggars, poor tailors and middle class people striving to advance in this society. It's a gripping book, extremely well written, that will hold the reader. It also puts the lie to all the claims we hear about democracy in India.