Rohinton Mistry's Indian Neorealism: The Voice of the People

Jennifer Takhar []

Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

This essay has been translated by the author from the original French.

Mistry's version of the Internal Emergency : "Living each day is to face one emergency or another" (581).

For many critics neorealism has concerned itself with fascism and wars; it is

first and foremost a moral statement, whose purpose was to promote a true objectivity -- one that would force viewers to abandon the limitations of a strictly personal perspective and to embrace the reality of the "others . . . with all the ethical responsibility that such a vision entails" (Quoted in "A Discourse on Neo-Realism, " Springtime, ed. Overby, 1987. p.159).

In literature and cinema neorealism is defined by its contact with everyman's reality, and this is the kind of reality emphasized in A Fine Balance. Like the great neorealist Bengali film director Satyajit Ray, Mistry has a pronounced preference for " the intimate story to the grand epic, and is the poet par excellence of the human-scale, life-sized comedy and tragedy of ordinary men and women... " (Imaginary Homelands, 114).

Using harsh realism, Mistry attacks what he sees as Indira Gandhi's fascism. Brutal everyday realism is at the forefront of A Fine Balance. The novel ends in 1984, after the assassination of Indira in New Delhi where the city is being consumed by flames and Sikhs are being tortured and massacred by Hindus who have lost their reason after the violent death of their Mother Goddess. Mistry's neorealism accurately conveys true to life misery without an ounce of sentimentality or pause for pity.

We are going to see how Mistry's own brand of verism attacks and revises institutional history which has for far too long shamelessly neglected the lives of the poor common man. He serves to provide a corrective for the factual lacunae of institutional history. A Fine Balance concentrates its attention on the terror experienced during the Emergency which historical texts have only superficially covered.

Mistry's characters like the neorealist Italian writer Vasco Pratolini's characters, struggle against all the odds to not suffer History in a purely passive servile way, as it may be argued the readers of institutional history do. This is Mistry's mission : he pokes at Indira's spectre and resurrects her figure to put her political miscalculations on trial in an end of the century showdown. It becomes clear that Mistry is especially infuriated by all the abuses that took place during the period of Emergency.

Verism, a humanitarian literature: " For votes and power they play with human lives. " (583 )

Faced with institutional history where understatement and euphemisms are used in order to describe political crimes and misdemeanours Mistry opts for a descriptive, no-holds-barred approach that does not overlook any of the unpalatable details of the Emergency. He espouses the verismo genre, which aspires towards a naked truth literary representation where all must be displayed, however disagreeable its appearance may be. In A Fine Balance Mistry emphasises pure veracity, as he sees it, underlining the most unsightly and hideous aspects of life: its poverty, despair and violence. Mistry, I argue, works in his own version of Italian Neorealism:

Neorealism, as the artistic expression of a historical period represents an important revolutionary moment...of Italian thought..(neorealism in cinema as well as in literature is)...the privileged medium for the conveyance of that new way of thinking and seeing reality...that need to analyse ourselves, that necessity to follow man and his vital problems...". Quoted in "In Defence of Italian Cinema", in Springtime, edited by Overby, pp.215-218.

The neorealism proper to Mistry is put to excellent use in his portrait of the scourge that the Emergency was with its forced sterilisations, the MISA, "Maintenance of Internal Security Act... Allows detention without trial, up to two years. Extensions also available on request" (570). It permits media censorship, imprisonment of academics opposed to the Emergency, the didactic slogans and speeches, the elimination of slum areas and the sinister family planning clinics and vans distributing free radios in exchange for a vasectomy or two.

Mistry exposes the most horrifying facets of the Emergency and the consequences felt by his protagonists. The situation becomes such that "Lots of people have disappeared in the Emergency" (570) This remark comes from a goonda (hooligan) to Dinabhai, the novel's heroine. Institutional history does not catalogue Indira's faux pas during the Emergency. Mr.Valmik, the scribe cum lawyer summarises the shortcomings of history with its privileging of political activity and ignorance of the repercussions on the poorer citizens and what they have to put up with because of the whims and blunders of politicians:

The Prime Minister cheats in the election, and the relevant law is promptly modified. Ergo, she is not guilty. We poor mortals have to accept that bygone events are beyond our clutch, while the Prime Minister performs juggling acts with time past" (563).

Indira has prevented anyone critically overlooking her acts, "juggling...with time past" by censoring the press and depriving the antagonising newspapers of electricity: "Editorials...had been silenced during her (Indira's) regime" (593).

Ishvar and Omprakash lose their slum dwelling in Bombay when it is ripped down to the ground by the City Embellishment programme. Ishvar gets sterilised in order to fill the day's quota of vasectomies. His legs then become affected with gangrene after his hasty operation and both limbs are amputated after a great deal of physical suffering. It is the dirt ridden surgical instruments that brought on the rotting of his flesh. The tailor loses his job because he no longer has the feet to work the pedals on his sewing machine : the description of the gangrenisation is grotesque, painful even for the reader: "From the groin to the knee the flesh had become black" (541). In spite of this personal setback Ishvar does not lose hope in the future. Omprakash having reached the age when marriage is imminent also finds himself pushed onto an operating table and sterilised against his will.

Everyone is affected by the forced sterilisations, the brainchild of none other than Sanjay Gandhi. Ashraf Chacha dies after his vasectomy. Mistry does not fail to ignore the other aspects of Kali-Yuga, which the Emergency has become. (In sanskrit yuga means an age, a subdivision of the cosmic cycle. Kali-Yuga is the fourth and last age, the age of darkness, which happens to be that in which we live today. It can be likened to a sort of Hindu iron age.)

Nine years after the declaration of the Emergency Maneck consults the Indian newspapers which attacked the crimes of Indira's government. However these attacks are short-lived since Indira is rapidly exonerated for her mistakes, getting reelected Prime Minister in 1980 : just after the Emergency

There were articles about abuses during the Emergency, testimony of torture victims, outrage over the countless deaths in police custody...Not many newspapers later...The ex-Prime Minister was poised to shed her prefix and return to power...The editorials now...(adopted)...the obsequious tone reminiscent of the Emergency. (593)

Henceforth the re-deification of Indira takes place. A brown nosed journalist demands "Can the Prime Minister have incarnated at least some of the gods in herself ?..." (593).

Avinash, the student friend of Maneck, is tortured and killed by the police because of his anti-Indira, anti-Sanjay and anti-Emergency vocal outbursts : Avinash's fatal injuries arouse the suspicions of his parents. The police cover-up, claiming "it was a railway accident " (594) becomes all too transparent. The reporter who has closely examined Avinash's corpse confirms what has been suspected all along, that he was brutally tortured for his political convictions, the euphemism for this unjust treatment being "wrongful death in police custody . . . the injuries were consistent with other confirmed incidents of torture : (The reporter's findings) Moreover, in view of the political climate during the Emergency, and the fact that their son, Avinash, was active in the Student Union, it would appear to be one more case of wrongful death in police custody" (594).

Unfortunately for Avinash's parents the psychological torture has not quite ended. They still have to gather together the inert bodies of their three daughters who have committed suicide (594). The girls could not bear being a financial burden to their parents and hang themselves by their saris to liberate their father of any further expense. Had Avinash not been killed he would have provided invaluable monetary aide for his family.

Dina's sewing shop goes bankrupt due to the disabling sterilisations of her workers Om and Ishvar. She then has to leave her apartment and workplace. She loses her machines and worst of all her independence. She is forced, after the failure of her business, to return to her brother's place which is a descent towards hell. Sadly, Dina loses the struggle against a fraternal dependence ; symbolically she loses at a card game with him-he is victorious in all ways-he has managed to make a servant out of his sister and break her free-living, something he has always wanted to do.(p.575).

In A Fine Balance the deification of Indira Gandhi is also portrayed as well as the troubled times of the Partition of India in 1947. Someone shouts out that Indira is " Mother India " and her son Sanjay is " the Son of India (who) shines from the sky upon us !" (266). These appellations happen to be the titles of popular Hindi films -- Mother India (1957) and Son of India (1962) both directed by Mehboob Khan. -- and are quickly assimilated by the peasant spectators at an Indira electoral rally in the novel. Mistry makes Indira's irresistible rise to power ridiculous by spotlighting her pompous speeches and the contradictions between what she pronounces in her speech on the new "Twenty-Point Programme," a series of economic reforms , (265) and the crude truth behind her actions, guided largely if not wholly by her dominating son. The corruption, bribes taken, forced participation at her open air rallies, all of this is encouraged in order to falsely make believe that her popularity is on the rise. At this period of the Emergency the media is controlled by Indira. Indira fancies herself as the saviour of the ailing Indian nation. She propagates staged, bogus images of her greatness : to keep up the false image of the her popularity amongst the lower classes the participants/ half-willing spectators, are transported to the site where her speeches will be delivered, each one in turn is paid five roupies for his/her assistance. Several members of the bought audience feign interest in Indira's empty promises to avoid the blows of the (lathis) cudgels wielded by the strong and violently inclined police presence who monitor the public to ensure they play their parts as awe-inspired onlookers.

Nonetheless almost no one lends their ears to Indira's vacuous discourse : One woman breastfeeds her child, others play a round of cards whilst cynically commenting upon Indira's electoral tricks. She appropriates her father, Jawaharlal Nehru's gestures, by throwing back the garlands she has received from the public, but by her full acceptance of the title Mother India, Indira demonstrates a complete lack of respect for her father. Rushdie gives us a precis of the difference between Panditji and his daughter : " Jawaharlal...once told an Indian crowd that they, the people, and not mother earth or anything else, were India... " (Imaginary Homelands, 50) Indira did quite the opposite of this because she was affected by " the grandiloquent, l'Etat c'est moi, delusions of a Louis XIV. " (50).

Moreover Indira manipulated Hinduism to increase her popularity level, an act which would surely have been anathema for her father as Rushdie confirms for us : " Her use of the cult of the mother-of Hindu mother-goddess symbols and allusions- and the idea of shakti, of the fact that the dynamic element of the Hindu pantheon is represented as female-was calculated and shrewd.....this would have disturbed her father.." (Imaginary Homelands, 50) who was staunchly against the manipulation of Hindu mysticism as testified by some of his philosophical clashes with the Mahatma for the very same reason.

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