Something of this novel reminded me of the work of Primo Levi – not the scope, which is definitely as Dickensian as many reviewers suggest – nor the subject matter, which is relatively remote from Levi’s preoccupations. I struggle to articulate the exact parallel, but perhaps its the unremitting sense of certain failure which dominates both bodies of work.
And yet Mistry has a fine sense of humour, perhaps part of the balance that the title refers to is the way that he manages to place joyous comedic scenes in the body of a profoundly dismal narrative.
The characters move in and out of likeability as the novel moves in and out of humour and grim disaster. Dina is both an appealing young wife and a shrewish employer. Ishvar and Omprakash are both full-blooded comedy figures and skivers who rip off their employer (Dina) and Maneck is both an idealistic young man and an awful prig. What they all are, is stuck. By caste, poverty or cowardice (on Maneck’s part at least) they are locked into a descending spiral of circumstances that drags them to homelessness, loss of liberty and even of limbs and life, even as the results of the ‘Emergency’ drive India further into polarised communities and violent retaliations for real and imagined slights, insults and incursions.
Viewing each character through the eyes of the others gives a rounded picture of the situation as a whole, although Maneck, about whom we really discover least, is more central to the story than the others, and as a result, when he disappears for eight years to work in Dubai, we, the readers, are left with no clear understanding of his development, this is perhaps the weakest part of the book, and somewhat undermines the previous complex narrative.
On his return, Maneck’s responses to the circumstances of his former companions are as inadequate as his response to the murder of a fellow student which occurs in the opening scenes of the book. He is polite but dishonest with Dina and pretends not to recognise Ishvar and Omprakash when he sees them begging on the street. No spoilers here, but by the time the three discuss his coldness towards them, he has carried out an irreversible and shocking act as his expression of loathing for what his country has become.
It is a substantial book, requiring quite a commitment from a reader, but in my view it does reward the work required. India is a vast and complex country, a divided and incoherent set of religious, cultural and caste structures and a bewildering political space. Few novels explore the entirety of India, geography and culture, politics and religion, history and gender relations, poverty and power – but Mistry makes a solid attempt at bringing this huge subject to life for readers, and creates some fine characters in the process. Ishvar and Om, for example are more Shakespearian than Dickensian in their robust humour but I found my sympathies entirely engaged by their desperate situation and their hopeful dreams of finding security and maybe even happiness. What happens to them is profoundly disturbing and as a single example of the effect of sweeping political decision making on the people at the bottom of society is as powerful a tale as any by Victor Hugo, with whom I think Mistry also bears reasonable comparison.