Reading four novels, each set in a major Indian city, one after another over a single week or so, has made the stories feel as if they might overlap, dovetail, conflate, creating quite the enriching literary experience. In the midst of A Fine Balance, I also read (oh so blessedly because it was assigned for review) Jhumpa Lahiri’s upcoming The Lowland, then continued with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl (interview upcoming) on the page, and Jeet Thayil’s Narcoplis (finally!) stuck in the ears. Both Lowland and Oleander happen mostly in Calcutta; Balance is centered on an unnamed city not unlike Bombay, which is where Narcoplis is set. Read together, the four titles formed a quatrain that intently examines the last half-century of Indian political, socioeconomic, and even literary history.
But I’ve digressed (again …). Back to Mistry’s “City by the Sea,” where four lonely souls create an unlikely family-of-sorts when circumstances eventually gather them under a single shared roof, in spite of the political, social, and religious boundaries working relentlessly to keep them separately isolated. India in the 1970s is in the midst of violent upheaval, in a state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Dina Dalal, whose apartment will finally become a home, has been a widow exponentially longer than she was a wife. With her eyesight failing and her options diminishing as she enters middle age, she welcomes a college student, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a childhood schoolfriend, as a paying guest. He arrives on Dina’s doorstep at the same time as Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle-and-nephew tailors who have come in answer to her employment request.
Dina and Maneck are Parsi, of ‘good’ families with long histories, whose lives are forced to change rapidly as their country metamorphosizes around them. Since her father’s sudden death when she was a young child, Dina has tried to escape her conservative older brother’s demanding control. Maneck, a beloved only child, mistakes his parents’ desire to ensure him a future of multiple choices (in spite of his father’s ironic unwillingness to change even to save the family’s business) for rejection and abandonment. Ishvar and Omprakash, both born of the Untouchable caste, are the only survivors in their Hindu family of a heinous religiously-fueled purging, and attempt to find new lives in the big city.
The ‘fine balance’ of these four lives – with a vivid cast of many others around them – are revealed over 600 intimate pages (or 24.5 hours stuck in the ears as read by John Lee who, as Orhan Pamuk’s usual narrator, takes a couple of hours to get used to here, I must admit). That said, please do not let those numbers deter or distract you in any way … once begun, you’ll quickly realize that you’ll want nothing more than to go through such committed lengths in order to finally (bittersweetly) finish.