Rating: 5 stars
Sometimes, you think you know what there is to know about a country or a situation. You think the things you read in school, and the other things you read later in newspapers, journals, fiction and histories, have told you the truth. Then you remember that you’re a historian and unless you go back to the source, you’re only ever going to get a version of the truth from the perspective of the person telling it. I knew things about the caste system in India from an anthropological perspective. I didn’t know how that system played out (continues to play out?) in Indian society in all its grimness. I had a picture in my head of Indira Gandhi being a positive political figure, without knowing much about her politics or actions beyond the left wing aspects of her government, her drive to eradicate poverty, and her popularity with Indian people.
I know people who have travelled in India, who acknowledge that there is poverty there, but gloss over it with their tales of what a spiritual experience they’ve had on their travels in that confusing country. I know people of Indian heritage who have been to India on visits to extended family who didn’t make the journey out in search of a different life. India is part of who they are. They talk about family, they don’t talk about politics.
Then you read a book that draws back a curtain and shines a light on things you vaguely knew but didn’t think about. A Fine Balance was such a book for me.
It is an outstanding book. I found it hard going, having to regularly put it down at each moment of injustice in the lives of the characters. There are many moments of injustice as India in the 1970s was a corrupt and unfair society. Lots of what went on in the book upset me, but it felt very important to read it and acknowledge the hardness of life and the way humans adapt to the difficult situations they find themselves in. Those with the hardest lives adapted more capably than those from a more privileged background. Although at times it was a grind to read, it was a grind that felt necessary. It felt truthful.
The depiction of life for people from the untouchable caste, the ostracism they experience daily, the lies that have to be told if you want to try to learn a different skill, one that doesn’t involve death or bodily functions, was an eye-opener.
The violence that went along with independence and partition wasn’t a surprise, but the way the novel made it personal made me realise how devastating the process was for communities. People who were your friends one day became enemies overnight. In the current media focus on the anniversary of partition, through popular TV like Who Do You Think You Are, dramas like Indian Summers, and documentaries, more about what partition actually meant for people is being spoken about. I am realising that I know very little about India’s modern history.
Indira Ghandi’s state of emergency and virtual dictatorship that included a policy of compulsory sterilisation was also news to me. It’s one thing to vow to eradicate poverty, it’s a completely different thing to attempt to achieve it through slum clearances and sterilisation to control population. Boy, that shocked me. The depiction of the sterilisation programme in the novel is disturbing.
The descriptions of the slums and shanties were also grim, and the way people were forced to clamber over each other, or deny someone else’s existence just to keep afloat. That said, the camaraderie between Dina, Ishvar, Omprakash and Maneck that develops through each person’s tribulations is a warm and hopeful thread running through all the grimness. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s not a hope that lasts.
The more contemporary literature from non-European writers that I read, the more I realise that I’m not as well informed as I like to think I am.