Rohinton Mistry's 1995 novel captured the grand tragedies of Emergency

IT ALL CAME TUMBLING DOWN: Demolitions and resettlement during the Emergency. Mistry’s novel captures the human cost of this political misadventure which was declared 45 years ago on June 25. Courtesy: Indian Express archive
A procession of the city’s most grotesque inhabitants makes its way through busy streets. Beggars, their limbs amputated, their wounds oozing poison, hobble along as the mutilated body of Shankar — one of their own — is carried on a bamboo bier to the cremation grounds. The cortège is attacked suddenly by a contingent of riot police that has received misleading information on the wireless. The commanding officer, who instructs his troops to withdraw when he realises the error, explains the swift act of violence: “They were mistaken for political activists in fancy dress — troublemakers indulging in street theatre, portraying government figures as crooks and criminals embarked on beggaring the nation. You know the sort of thing.” 

This blighted image that appears towards the end of Indo-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry’s second novel, A Fine Balance, is fittingly microcosmic. Its composition has every tint and texture of Mistry’s narrative arc: unexpected violence, the vulnerability of lives intertwined by malevolent destinies, new affections that survive, in spite of it all, like the undergrowth around gutters. It is also a ludicrous sketch of a nation, its grand tragedies and political misadventures, specifically during the Emergency of 1975, which was declared 45 years ago on June 25. 

A Fine Balance, first published in 1995, examines the entrails of an unnamed city by the sea. But this is Bombay: disorderly, unrested, queuing up at communal taps for the benediction of a trickle, reeking of human waste. One knows it by the names of its shops: L.M. Furtado & Co., by the billboards advertising Amul Butter and Modern Bread, by posters of Amitabh Bachchan in dingy lanes. 

Mistry examines the Emergency by hurtling his characters against its draconian backdrop
This is the city of the 42-year-old Parsi Dina Dalal, who, when widowed young, decides to live alone in a tiny flat rather than suffer her brother Nusswan’s tyrannies in their parental home. This is also the city of Ishvar Darji and his nephew, Omprakash Darji, tailors with a macabre past, who have escaped the limitations of being born into the Chamaar caste of leather workers. They find themselves here, outside Dina Dalal’s door, hoping for work and a kinder fate. And then there is Maneck Kohlah, a college student who is away from his home in the mountains to study refrigeration and air-conditioning in this city by the sea. Miserable in the hostel he inhabits, he finds his way to Dina’s flat in his quest for safer accommodation. 

A Fine Balance - Author: Rohinton Mistry; Publisher: Faber and Faber; Price: Rs 2,999 (hardcover), Rs 3,250.54 (paperback), Rs 215.46 (Kindle); Pages: 768 pages (hardcover), 624 pages (paperback), 628 pages (Kindle)
It is within this brutal cityscape that Mistry’s characters are brought together to form an unlikely family that stumbles upon happiness and even manages to banish years of loneliness. But only momentarily. For they are sucked into the vortex of political events; their tenuous dignity and independence is razed to the ground, like the slums that are knocked down as part of the unnamed Prime Minister’s bid to beautify the city. 

Mistry examines the Emergency by hurtling his characters against its draconian backdrop. Its excesses — the curtailment of civil liberties, a mass sterilisation campaign imposed upon the urban poor, the demolition of shantytowns — transform the city by the sea into a seething monster that swallows its most defenceless residents. Hoardings advertising Amul Butter and Modern Bread are replaced by those with photos of the Prime Minister, declaring, “Iron Will! Hard Work! These will sustain us!” A mobile Family Planning Clinic appears at Ishvar’s and Omprakash’s hutment colony. In Maneck’s college, student unrest leads to the formation of factions: Students For Democracy and Students Against Fascism. Under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), which was passed in 1971 by the Indian parliament, and amended during the Emergency to silence dissent, the office of the campus newspaper is ransacked.

While the Emergency propels the protagonists towards irrevocable tragedy, its spectacle is often revelatory in its idiocy. At a rally where the Prime Minister arrives to make a speech, her son hovers in a hot-air balloon, throwing leaflets containing the Prime Minister’s Twenty-Point Programme. A sycophantic official announces into the microphone: “Yes, my brothers and sisters, Mother India sits on stage with us, and the Son of India shines from the sky upon us!” The hot air balloon drifts away and the sky is cleared for a helicopter to shower rose petals upon the stage. An 80-foot cutout of the Prime Minister trembles as the helicopter flies too close to the stage. It comes crashing down, unleashing chaos as the crowd below it runs to escape the tumbling leviathan. Prophetic in its evocation of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the fallen cut-out of Mother India also portends imminent dangers for the tailors, who are at the rally. 

To read A Fine Balance now is to discover that it forewarns of new dangers. The Emergency lasted until 21 March, 1977, but it has lingered or mutated in deadly ways. Dissenters are quelled with tear gas or worse; universities are subjugated by men in masks. Isn’t Maneck’s college under siege, even today? 

V S Naipaul, in his book India: A Wounded Civilization, first published in 1976, writes, “The poor are needed as hands, as labour; but the city was not built to accommodate them.” Aren’t Ishvar and Omprakash endearing archetypes of the anonymous migrant labourer who has been uprooted from his village, lives in a ghoulish city, and desperately seeks his way back home?  

New Yorker that described his realism as Tolstoyan. Its most enduring achievement, however, is perhaps that it shines a light on lowly, bedraggled creatures, immortalising them in one’s imagination, even though they are wiped out all too soon by the politics of the day.

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