Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mistry Updated

Just after finishing a readaloud of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, I ran across The Economist's what it identifies as "India's Languishing Countryside," and found myself wondering whether the author understood--he must--how much he was providing a backgrounder/update on Mistry's grim but grimly satisfying novel of life under "The Emergency"--Indira Gandhi's lawless power grab that kept her illegitimately in office in the late 70s.  Readers of the novel and the update will recognize the home turf of Ishvar and Om, the two benighted tailors who carry Mistry's story.  The E does provide some extra background: the importance of post-independence land reform in shaping the structure of the Gangetic economy, for  instance, and the ironic dilemma created by the fact that the land is simply too productive for its own good, leading to a kind of overpopulation and land prices that nobody can pay.  The also adds just a bit about India's economic "renaissance," if it is that, which remains offstage but still sets the background for village life.   Christmas (!) special on

There are, perhaps surprisingly, some tiny notes of solace in this hard story--particularly, the insight that Hindus and Muslims here in the villages actually get on quite well, somehow immune or at least indifferent to the clashes that drive their brethren in the cities.  But perhaps the central point is how little seems to have changed at least since Mistry's time and perhaps in ages beyond memory.  Forget about the "abolition" of the caste system: leatherworkers are still leatherworkers, midwives are still midwives.  The E quotes B. R. Ambedkar, the architet of the India's constitution, himself from the bottom of the caste hierarchy:  "What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communialism?"

What indeed?   If the reporter got it right, the answer would have to be:  not much.

Afterthought:  I hope to say more about the Mistry novel tonight or tomorrow morning.

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