It’s gone. I let it go. My bruised and weathered paperback of Rohinton Mistry’s raw portrait of India has gone to a new home. For three years it travelled with me on the boat, from Turkey to India, via Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and Oman. But yachts are small things and libraries take up a lot of room, so I have to swap and donate as I travel. This novel has been the hardest to give up. I’ve lent it and recommended it to anyone who wants to talk books or India. I’ve written about it, reviewed it and referenced it.
I read it while Jamie and I dodged Somali pirates, container ships and fishing nets on our eleven day sail from Salalah to Bombay. In search of some respite from the waves and VHF radio alerts, I consumed Mistry’s intricate stories of small triumphs and major tragedies. He unpeeled India’s layers like an onion until I was left with nothing but a handful of tears and a full heart.
Through a barely concealed portrayal of Indira Gandhi’s state of emergency in the 1970s, Mistry reveals the lives of his four main protagonists in visceral detail. With engrossing narrative and piercing candour, he doesn’t shy away from the iniquities of the caste system, inter-religious violence, political corruption and the subjugation of women.
In Mumbai, I watched the novel’s “city by the sea” unfold in front of my eyes: down every alley, in all the markets and on each bicycle his cast of characters revealed themselves.
Reminiscent of the great panoramic novels of the nineteenth century (War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Great Expectations) I was introduced to a company of small players as I was buffeted around cheerless depths and brave heights. Even with the squalor, poverty and general unfairness of it all depicted by Mistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a more enlightened and tender homage to India.
A Fine Balance has left the boat. But it will always be with me.