It’s hard to know how to review this book without drifting into what might sound like hyperbole. I want to tell you that it was possibly the most powerful novel I’ve read. I want to tell you that I felt like I lived with the characters over the three weeks that it took me to read this book and I want to go and knock on their door and say hi as if we’re old friends.
Mistry tells the story of the intersection of four people’s lives during the mid-1970s in India. Dina, a middle-class widow who clings to her independence any way she can; Maneck a university student from an idyllic hill station who has come to board at Dina’s house; Ishvar, a tailor, employed by Dina, from the untouchable class, come to the city to escape village violence and hardship, and his nephew, 18 yr old Om, also a tailor. The four form an unlikely family unit in Dina’s little house during Indira Ghandi’s “State of Emergency”.
We learn of the history of all four characters—how they got to where they are now in ‘the city’. The tailors’ stories are particularly harrowing. Mistry takes us on a tour of caste violence, where the lives of the untouchables are worth very little. Although Ishvar and Om escape to the city and take up jobs as tailors, their absolute poverty and precarious existence means they are never far away from gross exploitation and sudden violence. Yet they are both warm-hearted and unbelievably optimistic, especially Ishvar, whose warmth and gentleness has left a warm patch on my heart. I feel like I know him and he has touched me with his kindness.
I didn’t know much about the State of Emergency before reading this book, but wow. “Beautification” and forced (and brutal and clinically dangerous) sterilisation… I can sort of understand where the government was coming from because I guess when the population gets out of hand to that extent, things become anarchic and uncontrollable. But the sheer lack of human rights afforded to anyone during this regime was staggering. Maneck’s experience with his politically active university friend Ashvar; Dina’s landlord’s thuggery; the tailors’ colourful and pretty scary experiences as urban poor all occurred because of the complete curtailment of civil liberties during that time.
Despite the horrors and general bleakness I’ve partially described, the four characters probably would not have come together under other circumstances. The brief time they lived together in Dina’s home was a time of unexpected joy and happiness for all of them. For Maneck and Dina especially, it was the most wonderful time of their lives. I wanted it to continue forever. For the tailors, they probably knew, like everything else in their lives, that happiness and security could not be permanent. Of the four, they were by far and away the most adept at the ‘fine balance’ of hope and despair required to get on with life.
This book made me cry and laugh. There are times when it felt like I was punched in the stomach. There were times when I had to put it down to just chill out for a second. Mistry has written a story with horrors and despair that could easily have been sentimental or sensationalist. Instead it was poignant, funny and beautiful. This is a sad story, but it’s also a really happy one.