“After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents – a clanking chain of chance events,” writes Rohinton Mistry in A Fine Balance. That was how I met Mistry – a casual encounter in my college library when I decided to pick up something different. Having read and reread all the books by Agatha Christie and Wodehouse, I decided to choose a genre and an author that I had never read before. At 600 pages of literary fiction, and penned by an Indian author that I hadn’t heard of, A Fine Balance was intimidating. Still, I checked the book out from the library and took it home.
Despite six gruelling hours of college every day, followed by four hours of Chartered Accountancy classes, I finished reading the book in three days. The story is set during the Emergency in the mid-1970s—a period marked by political unrest and human rights violations. Mistry’s prose wrenches your heart with its unvarnished depiction of the horrors during this period, like forced sterilization, poverty, beggar syndication in metro cities and the agony of the lower castes. Though the tale was emotionally draining, I couldn’t put the book down. After completing the book in the middle of the night, I started rereading the book again the next morning. I had never done that with any book. I had to decode what had so enthralled and engrossed me in this book. This time, I paused to re-read Mistry’s sparkling prose and vibrant thoughts, written in a style that resonates long after you turn the page. Mistry’s writing is bleak but magnificent, and moving too. It tips your fine balance and has you hurtling into a storm of emotions. This time, I took more than a week to read and kept jotting down the passages that stood out.
My desire to explore more of Mistry made me pick up his book, Family Matters, next. While I saw the political unrest in India during the 1970s in the previous novel, here I saw the country and her people through the eyes of a dysfunctional family. Mistry’s astute observation of the world around him brings a vivid picture to your mind of the dwindling Parsee community of Mumbai. Categorising the book as a family drama is as deficient as stating Rapunzel is a tale about hair-loss. Family Matters depicts the corruption in society, the insensitivity and callousness of people we love and the harshness of being old in an ever-youthful metro city.
From there, I went on to read Such a Long Journey and Tales from Firozsha Baag. I couldn’t have enough of Mistry. Despite the despair that clutches you when you read Mistry’s books, there is an underlying thread of subtle humour, coupled with a possibility of hope, and you find yourself nodding along when critics call him India’s Charles Dickens.
“Everyone underestimates their own life. Funny thing is, in the end, all our stories…they’re the same. In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story: of youth, loss and yearning for redemption,” says Rohinton Mistry in Family Matters. Truer words haven’t been spoken. What distinguishes a master storyteller from the others is not so much the story that is told but the manner. That’s where Mistry shines.
(This article first appeared in The Free Press Journal, Sunday Literature Section.)