In Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”, Indira Gandhi’s emergency era is the backdrop of tragic events befalling the four protagonists, who, despite the utter hopelessness and anxiety surrounding them, find comfort in each others’ company. The story starts in the same year the emergency was declared, 1975. Indira Gandhi was found guilty of cheating in the elections. But instead of resigning Prime Ministership, she twisted the law in her favour, turning against her opposition in a despotic effort to keep her throne. Tyranny became regular fare. Public meetings and processions banned, opponents and presumed opponents thrown in jail without trial, destitute street dwellers forced out of the city ruthlessly in the name of civic beautification and garabi hatao, forced vasectomies and tubectomies in the name of birth control terrorizing the helpless poor – events with grave consequences were driven to insignificance by their frequency. In these troubled times, two low caste chamaars (leather workers) turned darzis (tailors), fleeing the oppression of their native village, go to the “city” for their share of fortunes, or misfortunes as they discover what fate has in store.
The city by the sea, although never referred to by name, is inevitably Bombay. The tailors did not choose to abandon their village of their own free will. They were victims of the caste system, by which upper castes have driven the lives of the so called inferior castes to horrible ignominy. Mistry brings out, with devastating effect, the unbelievable levels of cruelty humans can impart upon their fellow. Hands chopped off, molten lead poured into ears, murder at the drop of a hat – are all commonplace, the mere hint of a diversion from meaningless customs bearing extremely violent consequences for the mute, conforming lower caste communities, in the hands of the goondas bred by upper castes. The problem exists to this day and will continue to plague India unless dealt with very strictly, like racism was dealt with in the United States. But before that, India, like the United States or any other developed country of the free world, needs literacy. Only the light of knowledge will dispel the hideous shadow of the caste system tormenting the nation for centuries. Only through complete literacy will the citizens be able to choose forthright leaders, drive out spineless bastards raping the country for power, playing one against another in their shameless show of selfishness. No more caste system in India, that evil which makes many of its teeming millions stoop below animals. No more divisions on religions. No more shackles on the masses. Unite, not divide. It’s hard to believe, but true, that in the India of the twenty first century, with smart engineers and scientists sending rockets to space, there are still in the deeper pockets of its colourful garment, people who undergo such discrimination every day, and people who can can commit such brazen crimes without fear of justice. And why just in the hell holes of deep rural India? I’m sure there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing roaming the urban jungles with as much vindication in their hearts and minds. How can we call ourselves civilized knowing such barbaric prejudices in the hearts of so many of our people?
But I digress. My intent was merely to talk about the fate befalling Ishvar and Omprakash(Om) — the two tailors. But can one conscientious human possibly talk about them without first venting oneself against the system – the very real system which is no fiction for countless unfortunate souls even today? A system that can only be eradicated with more and more people like Dina and Maneck, who befriend Ishvar and Om in Bombay. Disparate backgrounds notwithstanding, the four cement a bond. Driven by circumstances, they even share a common roof, connect with each other by kindness and love – that which make us human.