I’m not exactly sure if the distinguished experts in Indian literature would agree with me on the existence of a theme such as Indian Realism, but during a Twitter chat on English, August, this concept sprung up. And it stuck on. If we look at English, August, it not just talks of the rural and city life in surprising detail, but it also includes those finer elements that make it all the more realistic. From poverty to broken homes, squalid living conditions to the stark differences between the rich and the poor. Agastya, the main protagonist, had a queer habit of always noticing shit everywhere, and has quite a vocabulary to describe it. I’m not sure if it fits in the whole scheme of portraying an ‘authentic’ India, but it did get on my nerves. And yet again, it’s not a lie. It may not have been Slumdog Millionaire style, but it was a fraction of it indeed.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry holds the distinction of being the ONLY BOOK to ever make me cry. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I found this book so morbidly depressing that it ruined an entire trip to Calcutta. Since I was travelling by train, I had decided to borrow a friend’s copy and I found this book to be sufficiently meaty to survive a week-long trip by train, to and fro. Such a mistake. The depressing characters, situations, and with no character being able to catch a break, it not just set a melancholic tone for the trip, it had me in tears on the way back. I was hiding on the upper berth, grabbing on to the curtains just so no one would see me with a wet face and misty eyes.
Published in 1995, the story is based during the period following India’s independence, tracing the many changes that took place in a socio-political level, right up to Emergency during the 1970s called by the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The plot revolves around four central characters, Ishvar and Narayan, brothers from the chamaar clan who work with leather. Regarded as untouchables, the brothers are made to work with a Muslim tailor, Ashraf chacha, in an attempt to break through the caste system. Maneck, a college student, goes to Mumbai to get his degree so he could offer a backup profession in case his father’s shop shuts down. Maneck takes up boarding at Dina’s house, a middle-aged widow. Her failing eyesight prevents her from sewing and earning a living of her own and so she hires the tailors, Ishvar and Om, Narayan’s son, to work for her.
Each one’s back story is touched by death and grief, and the book largely depicts how the poor and lower middle class grapple with poverty, oppression and jealousy across all levels. And sometimes, it gets too much to handle despite the fact that we know all this to be true. Maybe we tend to ignore the harsh realities of urban and rural life, especially since out of sight is out of mind. But this book literally held my face toward the story every time I wanted to look away, breathe and process what just happened.
The ending is quite tragic, at least’s that’s what I thought. And it hurt to realise that sometimes, some lives, no matter how much they’re beaten down time and again, still lose against fate and can never quite reach the surface, attain happiness. Sometimes, people have to make peace with what they’re left with.