India in the Balance
India -- a country polarized by serenity and chaos, richness and lack, holiness and corruption -- acts as a magnet for the irrational. Neurotics seek enlightenment there; capitalists plunder silks; gentry hunt tigers; spinsters enter caves. The rest of us make our pilgrimage in the imagination, drawn to the erotic, exotic mystery that is India. But what does India represent to its own 950 million people? We asked writer Rohinton Mistry, who was born in Bombay, and whose second novel, A Fine Balance, was recently short-listed for the Booker Prize. "There is a sense of mystery," he agrees, his voice gentle and melodic. "Perhaps it's because of the age of the civilization, the unbroken link with the past. Many colonizers took something away with them, so there's an ongoing connection with other parts of the world. Yet because India is so complex and dense, it will always be remote. "When you live there, when (India) is your reality, what may seem exotic or artistic is not enough to fulfill your life," he continues, speaking carefully now. "I'm not trying to demean the tourists. But it's easy for them to imagine the life of a Bombay businessman who lives overlooking the sea and drinks scotch and soda every night. It's just not possible for tourists to understand what it means to live in the circumstances of the vast majority of Indians." Unless, of course, they read A Fine Balance, a novel so deeply human, you feel you've known its characters since childhood. How did Mistry weave the intimate, domestic details of everyday lives into a work this vivid, this powerful? "I'm not sure; it's a difficult question," he says, seriously, and with no false modesty. "I do know that, for me, the story is only as good as the characters that inhabit it. I've been told this is an epic; maybe it is. Writing has moved away from that. And perhaps when you move away, you sacrifice the three-dimensional quality of character development." He kept his balance even in the writing of the book, coming close to his characters' passions and pain, then pulling back delicately, closing the distance so the characters weren't flattened to the page, but shying away from anything maudlin. And with a story that unfolds the stark realities of poverty, crime, loneliness, caste prejudice, torture and compulsory sterilization, interweaving them with playful wit, easy camaraderie, pure joy and deep love -- it would be easy to be maudlin.Living each day is to face one emergency or another. -- Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance Mistry sets his story amid the political chaos of 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency that suspended civil rights. Then, by focusing on four lives that circumstances mesh together, he accomplishes what American feminists have been trying to do for decades: make the personal political. "Perhaps in this time and place, the political intruded with such intensity into personal lives that it makes the job a little easier," he says graciously. "The connection is already there. In the U.S. or Canada, it would be more complex; you'd have to make a paper trail." Why did he choose 1975? "Every year is eventful in India," he says ruefully. "But I left India in '75. It wasn't that I had to flee the country; it was just coincidence, but because I missed the action, so to speak, I wanted to look back. I knew the panic it created -- panic, and also a bit of euphoria, that now things were going to improve. Indian people have always lived in hope." Balanced finely, in Mistry's novel, by despair. "How far are you in the book?" he asks. "A time will come when the four will create this little island, this oasis. And that is something that could never have happened without the suffering they find themselves in." The four characters, you see, are an agnostic college student, son of an entrepreneur from a small mountain town; a Parsi widow (raised in the Zoroastrian religion that foreshadowed much of Christianity) from a professional family whose pride forces her to become self-sufficient; and two Hindu tailors from what was once called -- and still is -- the "untouchable" class. After a moving, sometimes comical struggle, the four connect. Their "oasis" brings to life the kind of harmony that, on the rare occasions when it happens, justifies India's eternal hopefulness. Reviewing A Fine Balance in Time, Pico Iyer wrote, "Few have caught the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India, the unaccountable crookedness and sweetness, as well as Mistry." When the quote is read to him, Mistry chuckles. "I don't think the crookedness is unaccountable! It's a legacy of that bewildering, complex, almost Kafkaesque British bureaucracy, which perhaps was never meant to work in India, but was given to us and retained. That bureaucracy provides a lot of scope for crookedness. At every step there is a piece of paper to sign, a form to fill out, so when someone wants to use that to make an extra buck, it's very easy." As for sweetness, Mistry politely proclaims it a universal. When he's pressed with a series of anecdotes, though, he admits there may be an extra gentleness in Indian culture. "I think what happens is, when there is no material stuff to share, all you can share is a kind word, a sweet gesture," he remarks. "And so there are more transactions in those things than in anything else."At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom. -- Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947, as India gained her independenceHinduism suffuses India, but alongside this rich, varied polytheism runs the straight, strict monotheism of more than 100 million Muslims. Mistry, who is Parsi (Zoroastrian), at first minimizes the bitter Hindu-Muslim conflicts. "I think the communities have managed to live together admirably," he comments, reluctant to give the minority's biases too much credence. "Hindu nationalism is an artificial concoction of politicians: It's very easy to track it down." Energy animates his calm, precise features when he talks about the controversial Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose roots go back to the right-wing -- but secular -- Jan Sangh party. BJP only won a handful of seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections, Mistry points out. Then they began agitating about a mosque in Ayodhya that is supposed to be the birthplace of the god Ram. "The contention is that they destroyed a Hindu temple at the birthplace of Ram," he explains. "A small sanctum still exists alongside the mosque, and its keeper dreamed he was told to place idols of Ram and his consort inside that sanctum." Co-opting the animosity sparked by that double-historied site, the BJP allied with a quasi-religious Hindu group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad. By 1989 -- the first time a leader from the Nehru clan lost the election, on charges of corruption -- BJP had jumped to nearly 90 seats in parliament. And in the last election, "BJP won the largest number of seats in Parliament," Mistry reports, swiftly adding, "It wasn't an outright majority." Much as he'd like to downplay the divisiveness, he's candid enough, when asked how many people support BJP, to admit, "It's hard to generalize. There are well-educated people who have swallowed the whole thing hook, line and sinker. "It's the same when any political party wants a scapegoat," he remarks, interlacing thin, sensitive fingers. "I don't think it's too far-fetched to talk about Hitler and the Jews in this case. (Hindu nationalists) are saying that the Muslims are the cause of the fate of the country, its lack of progress. They say the Muslims don't live in the country as Indians, they are Muslims first." He takes a deep breath. "When politicians cannot tackle the real problems of food and shelter, they do this sort of thing. "India needs leaders," Mistry exclaims suddenly. "It has only politicians." But they are elected democratically, are they not? "India also needs a revolution in the hearts of people who have become cynical," he vollies back. "They have almost accepted that corruption is OK." That attitude has parallels in the U.S., but India faces far greater complexity. Calling itself a "sovereign socialist secular democratic republic," India must cope with more than 20 political parties, a populace speaking more than 1,000 languages and dialects, and a caste system it's taken centuries to rebel against. Mistry blames his people's passivity on that eternal Indian optimism, which, although it redeems his novel, both worries and exasperates him.Good thoughts, good works and good deeds. -- ZoroastrianismIn the next 40 years, India will overtake China as the world's most populous country. Religion may stir up foment, but Mistry insists that intelligent, sophisticated Indians have "absolutely no problem with a secular India." The real issues are "eradicating poverty, and education first because everything begins with that." Surely the different religions foster conflicting beliefs, goals and values, though? "I don't want to be too flippant about this," Mistry says, slowing his rush of words to a deliberate pace. "But most educated people today are concerned about success in economic terms." Material success is not at odds with the Hindu way of life or the Zoroastrian way of life, he observes. "In the Zoroastrian religion, it is recommended that one earn wealth and use it wisely, for the betterment of one's fellow human beings. So the meaning of life -- well, no, I don't want to say the meaning, but the purpose, perhaps -- the best use one can make of one's life in this context is to produce wealth and use it for the betterment of humanity." To an American sick of stuff, this might sound like craven rationalization. But in historical context, it makes sense. Fifty years ago, when India first gained independence, the middle class was negligible. It's now estimated at nearly 250 million Indians, all of them determined to seize their share of the good life. Religion plays out rather loosely in Mistry's life, but he staunchly believes the version of Zoroastrianism that says evil is as powerful as good. Evil may not be created by Ahura Mazda (the Zoroastrian name for God), but it coexists in tension with Ahura Mazda's goodness. "Man or woman is endowed with free will," Mistry continues, "and with this free will you choose your actions, your thoughts, your deeds. If you choose correctly, you will help in the war against evil. So it is extremely important that we choose correctly." We're each helping to keep the balance.