Dukhi, the father and Ishvar and Narayan, fed up of the oppression of lower castes, sends his sons to his friend Ashraf, so he can train them as tailors, breaking away from the erstwhile caste dictated professoin of chamaar. Narayan then returns to the village, setting up his own enterprise, his son Omprakash being sent to join his unmarried uncle Ishvar and Ashraf chacha, to train as a tailor. But Om loses his entire family when a vindictive upper caste landlord burns Narayan’s and Dukhi’s homes, decimating them. Following the annihilation, Ishvar and Om go to Bombay, to make some money before returning, planning to set up their own tailoring business.
After much searching, they finally land a job with Dina Dalal. Dina has herself fallen into bad times. A widow for sixteen years, she was managing to keep up with her home based sewing business, until her eyes began to falter. To pay for her rent, she plans to take up a paying guest and also run a tailoring business – both with her friend Zenobia’s help. Zenobia gets her in touch with a friend of their schooldays, Aban, who now lives in a faraway hill station, her son Maneck studying for a diploma in Refrigeration and Air Conditioning in Bombay. Maneck’s search for an accommodation, in the face of hostel ragging, turns out to be an opportune moment for Dina. She simultaneously receives a contract with Au Revoir exports, to stitch garments for them based on paper their patterns. All she needs is a couple of tailors, whom she finds in Ishvar and Om, themselves desperate for a job. Circumstances thus bring the quadrangle together.
Maneck and Om, despite their huge differences in backgrounds, become good friends. For a while everything goes smoothly – the orders are delivered in time, Maneck is relieved to find a new place, Ishvar and Om find a settlement, and Dina no longer has to beg her brother Nusswan for rent money. Then police drive Ishvar and Om out of their homes, their chawl destroyed under the city beautification scheme. Dina’s tailoring work suffers, but still limps along, as Ishvar and Om find a makeshift dwelling in the streets, under the awning of a pharmacy. But they are soon rounded up and driven out of the city along with a bunch of beggars, to provide cheap (free) labour to an irrigation project – another outcome of civic beautification scheme, wherein pavement dwellers were strategically eradicated. Dina’s work comes to a standstill. When Ishvar and Om return after their many travails, she is willing to give them accommodation in her own flat, letting them sleep in the verandah. Maneck, an idealistic boy, who does not believe in needless social divisions, is overjoyed. What starts for Dina as a survival strategy, to keep her business running by not losing her tailors, metamorphoses into her compassion for the destitute uncle nephew pair. Superficial customs fall apart as the four share the same food, the same bathroom, plates and glasses. Maneck is joyful in Om’s company, the two enjoying their teenage escapades.
Things however take a drastic downturn when, at the end an year of successful business and bonhomie, the tailors decide to take a vacation to their native place, to visit Ashraf chacha and to find a bride for Om, whom Ishvar is desperate to get married off. Maneck too, at the end of his diploma, decides to spend some time at home, before returning for his degree. Dina, alone, awaits their return in the hope of resuming her business, missing their presence. She remains waiting. Dreadful things happen to Ishvar and Om back in town. When they return to the city, broken and invalid, Dina has already lost her flat to her oppressive landlord. She’s back to staying with her brother – her will broken, freedom taken away. Maneck, instead of returning to Bombay, is sent to Dubai by his father, for a job. Their camaraderie is disrupted for good, with the heartbreaking fate of the tailors.
However, there is more heartbreak in store in the epilogue. A word of warning: If you feel, like me, that the book is sufficiently complete before the epilogue, don’t bother delving into the epilogue. It will depress you further, to encounter more deaths and the deeper revelation of the Ishvar and Om’s horrible fate. I’m not willing to disclose it here in my review.
Coming to the characters, Dina is the one most complete of the four. We see her as a young girl, growing up under Nusswan’s strict vigilance. The guilt ridden, puerile Nusswan, though critical at times of Dina, ultimately wants her well being. He’s always there for her – when she needs that extra money to pay her rent, and in the end when she is evicted from her flat and has no place to turn to. In some ways, Nusswan reminds me of Arun, Lata’s snobbish brother in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Both are caring towards their sibling(s), although in their own obnoxious ways. Dina’s marriage to Rustom is beautifully captured, the essence of their love disregarding the entrapments of wealth. Dina, though having become more skeptical in the hard times, has a heart of gold, as Maneck discovers in the gradual melting away of her hard outer shell, much to his delight. She is strong and independent, turning down the proposas that Nusswan brings after Rustom’s death, urging her to remarry. She remains in their old flat, braving the accompanying challenge of earning her own living, rather than succumbing to a more sated lifestyle she could have easily chosen. In the end, it is sad to see her crumble, her resistance giving way to a strange kind of peace that comes right off the pages, a sort of acceptance of defeat, a kind of tiredness in the face of insurmountable injustices she has witnessed. “I have seen enough,” she seems to say. “I don’t care anymore of what happens to me and world around.” Nusswan himself is surprised, missing the old Dina and her confronting habits.
Maneck’s character seems underdeveloped. Although we do get a sense of his isolation and depression on being away from his home and due the rift with his father, it also appears that he is a rational man, more mature than his years – from his sense of respect for Dina and from his modern ideas of marketing to resurrect their dwindling family business. This does not justify his final outcome, at least in the manner portrayed. There seems to be wide gap between his year in Bombay with Dina and the tailors, to his return nine years later (in the epilogue…there, I’ve already told you some of it!). The years in between are vital to his transformation and of which there’s simply not enough.
The Ishvar and Om characters are sufficient. One is moved almost to tears in the atrocious events befalling their cursed lives. At the same time, Mistry is successful of casting in them a philosophical wisdom, especially in Ishvar, a sense of detachment in the face of all adversities.
A few things are overdone, like the entire beggar entourage including their Beggarmaster, whom I found quite implausible. The haircollector turned psychopath turned holy man is also much too surreal. There are some mouthpieces – in Vasantrao Valmik and the Sikh taxi driver in Delhi (again, in the epilogue) – who shed some light on the emergency and degenerating political scene of the country thereafter.
The book has a prologue and an epilogue. While the prologue is very relevant and sets up the tone, unobtrusively introducing us to all the four principals, the epilogue, as I mentioned earlier, could be curtailed, without affecting the depth or completeness of the work. The one thing the epilogue does is to drive home the pain a few notches further.
Mistry’s style is extremely fluid and I’d rank him above the formidable likes of Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh in that department.
The work is substantial, over five hundred pages, or was it six hundred. Not once however it is ever tedious.