A Fine Balance: A Spring-Break Reading Recommendation

By Vinit Mukhija, FCL of Global Urbanization and Regional Development, Professor of Urban Planning 

Many of you have probably seen the warm reception and rave reviews of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the new book by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond about the precarious life of low-income U.S. tenants. For its lovely writing, minute details, pathos, and eviscerating critique of poorly regulated free-markets, some reviewers have compared the book with Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, a less academically-oriented but still meticulously researched project. While I’ve read and enjoyed Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the winner of the Los Angeles Times Current Interest Book Prize in 2012, Evicted is on my reading list. Here, however, I’m keen to suggest a third book for your spring reading. The references to Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the reviews of Evicted, reminded me of A Fine Balance (1995), Rohinton Mistry’s heartfelt masterpiece. A Fine Balance is a fictional counterpart to Boo’s insightful portrayal of poverty-stricken life in Mumbai, and I strongly recommend it.

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First edition of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995) Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Fine_Balance

A Fine Balance is set mostly in 1975, the year Mistry immigrated from Mumbai to Toronto. It opens with a quote of Balzac in Father Goriot, “… this story of great misfortunes,” which aptly describes the tragic tenor of the next six hundred pages. It follows the intertwined lives and struggles of four strangers: a young Parsi widow, a college student, and two tailors—an uncle and his nephew—fleeing caste violence and exploitation. Though one of Mistry’s secondary characters, a W.B. Yeats-loving proofreader, declares “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,” the scales in this saga are decidedly tilted towards misery and brutality. Like me, you will probably beg the author for a little more balance of hope and despair. Yet, this bleak novel, redeemed by Mistry’s humor, dazzling writing, and the indomitable spirit of its main characters, is surprisingly joyful.

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Rehan Sheikh, Amit Sharma, and Sudha Bhuchar in Tamasha’s stage adaptation of A Fine Balance (2006) Source: http://www.tamasha.org.uk/a-fine-balance/

Mistry tells his story in a realist style with rich details and thick description that help to create vivid character and subtext. He has the magical ability to transport his readers to his scenes. Most of the book is set in an unnamed city, “City by the Sea,” which with its trains, slums, density and crowds, Zoroastrians, and rainfall is obviously Bombay (now called Mumbai). This is fiction at its moving and empathetic best. A Fine Balance won the Los Angeles Times book prize in fiction in 1996, was a Booker Prize finalist, and features in the top 100 novels list of the BBC.

A tailor’s shop in Dharavi, Mumbai Source: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/tailors-shop-in-dharavi-november-4-2011-in-mumbai-india-news-photo/152486531

Other editions of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance:

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Sources: http://www.indiandownunder.com.au/2010/12/a-fine-balance/ and http://embuscades-alcapone.blogspot.com/2011/10/lequilibre-du-monde-rohinton-mistry.html and http://www.amazon.co.uk/A-Fine-Balance-Rohinton-Mistry/dp/057123058X

While Boo’s book presents a fierce and poignant criticism of contemporary free-markets, public corruption, and globalization, Mistry’s account is a clear indictment of socialist India with its strong vestiges of feudalism and patriarchy. For the disadvantaged, the social protections of the state are illusive and their survival is contingent on slumlords and beggarmasters. For most, there is no choice but to migrate to the cities, pay the necessary bribes (the informal cover charge of urban living), and eke out a living. The uncle and nephew find their custom-tailoring work disappears through automation, and survive through informal work in emerging global supply chains of readymade garments. This is India before the market liberalization of the nineties, and it is equally wretched for the poor. As a taxi driver in the book notes, “of course, for ordinary people, nothing has changed.”

So what is the solution or pathway to positive change? Mistry, like Boo, doesn’t provide answers. But he makes it abundantly clear that authoritarianism is not the answer. This is an important argument in India, where some of the elite have always looked at China with envy and imagined more success in social and economic development through benign dictatorships. Mistry’s book is set in the State of Emergency period, when the democratically elected Prime Minister suspended civil liberties and ruled by decree for a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977. Her administration pursued a 20-point economic program to increase agricultural and industrial production and improve efficiency, and there is some evidence of improvements in key indicators of productivity. But it is also clear that the state unleashed unprecedented abuse and atrocities through the so-called Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA).

The Prime Minister’s son, who had no constitutional authority, implemented his own five-point development plan with the support of state institutions. He pushed for a nationwide tree-planting program; ban on the dowry system; eradication of illiteracy; urgent family planning; and urban beautification. His agenda had significant support from the country’s middle-class. But his programs of mass forced sterilization for family planning and slum clearance for urban beautification are at the center of the misfortunes in A Fine Balance. While it would be too much to draw significant political economy lessons from Mistry, his book throws into sharp relief the ever-present flirtation with authoritarianism and the impulse for easy fixes and solutions to centuries old problems.

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