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Diasporic Consciousness in Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children


Diasporic Consciousness in Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Dr. Priyanka Singla

Associate Professor

Department of English

Government College for Women

Hisar, Haryana, India


Though the writer’s individual talent should be rooted in the tradition of a particular society and culture, the real strength of the modern literary imagination lies in the individual’s response in terms of belongingness, immigration, expatriation, exile and his/her quest for identity. The diasporic experiences of various writers of diaspora are bound to be different from each other. The scope of finding contrast is always there as the place of their origin does not bridge the gap between ‘home’- the culture of origin and ‘world’- the culture of adoption. Rohinton Mistry’s fiction is rooted in the streets of Bombay, the city he left behind for Canada at the age of twenty-three. The imaginary homeland becomes the literary capital for almost all the Indian diasporic writers. The image of Bombay has inevitably led to comparison of Rohinton Mistry with Salman Rushdie, another Bombay born author settled abroad. However, the differences between these two authors are as compelling as their similarities. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Mistry’s A Fine Balance, both of which are set in Bombay during the administration of Indira Gandhi and state of Internal Emergency. In the preset study, these two authors are compared on the basis of their different adopted lands leading to different diasporic consciousness. Even their view and attitude towards their homeland is forced to be different as Rushdie’s novel centered around Muslim middle- class while Mistry seems more at home among the Parsi community. Beyond such differences, however, there are certain similarities between these two novelists and their works. Both the novels have a tendency to collapse the distinctions between public and private worlds. In the present discussion, an attempt has been made to understand and analyze both Rushdie and Mistry’s diasporic consciousness as prominent writer of South Asian Diaspora.

Keywords: Diasporic Consciousness, Multiculturalism, South Asian Diaspora, Imaginary Homelands.

The word ‘diaspora’ means the dispersion of the Jews among the Gentiles after the period of their exile. Nearly every Indian writer- or writer of Indian origin in English- seems to have decided that the object of his or her imagination has to be the mother country. Jasbir Jain rightly points out that the diaspora has the “ambiguous status of being both an ambassador and a refugee” (11). The dilemma between the two is the typical struggle of a diasporic writer. They do not bother about the geographic borders of the nation state, rather the cultural borders perceived by most diasporic writers are quite understandably drawn along national lines. In a world without nation- states, these writers would have merged with others who deal with cultural confrontations of’ all kinds. But diaspora literature focuses on cultural states that are defined by immigration counters and stamps on one’s passport. The diasporic community in world literature is quite varied and complex. It has shown a great mobility and adaptability as it has often been involved in a double act of migration from India to West Indies and from there to Africa and then to Europe or America in search of stability. To deal with this kind of double, triple diaspora, the meetings of disparate cultures occur on various geographic levels: village- city, city- city, country- country. For the writers of ‘diaspora literature’ however, cultural rendezvous are restricted to those between countries. This is because the author are themselves dislocated along national lines. According to Bhilu Parekh, the diasporic Indian is like “the banyan tree, the traditional symbol of the Indian way of life, he spreads out his roots in several soils drawing nourishment from one when the rest dry up. Far from being homeless, he has several homes, that is the only way he has increasingly come to feel at home in the world” (106).

The Indian diaspora is varied at its core. The branches of this banyan tree reached far off countries like United States, Canada, Britain, Africa, Caribbean, South America and Australia. The well-known among these are V. S. Naipaul, Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee, M.G. Vassanji, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Geeta Mehta, Jhumpa Lahiri, Himani Banerji, Suniti Namjoshi, Uma Parmeswaran, and Neil Bisoondath. They treat India as their homeland but because of their different adopted lands, their consciousness as a diasporic writer is also different and gets its reflection in their work. But at the same time the Indian diaspora in general has a common concern to have a homeland of one’s own. To analyse a work of art on the basis of different geographic surroundings is no more an important issue because for various historical and economic reasons the postmodern literature has gone global. Any new book from writers like Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and V. S. Naipaul makes a big news. But these diasporic writers continue to be hung up on their national identities even if they do not sometimes admit it to themselves. The odd feature of diasporic literature lies in its continued projection of the writer’s motherland, its culture and history. For this speciality, the west finds colourful cultural ethnic shades in the diasporic writings. Most Indian diasporic writers seem to set their works in India and not in the adopted land. However, in view of the importance of geographical and historical space of any country in which the writer lives, the different consciousness of diasporic literature in terms of adopted land could not be ignored while it is difficult to decide which came first- the consciousness for the surroundings or the natural bent of writing. Writing set in the present setting is more natural. The Indian diaspora writers give expression to difficult voices as per their different immigrant experiences and realities of their new homeland. 

Living in diaspora means living in forced or voluntary exile and living in exile usually leads to severe identity confusion and problems of identification with the alienation from the old and new cultures and homelands. Uma Parmeswaran observes this making of a Diaspora consciousness in four phases:

There are four phases of immigrant settlement that are true both at the individual and the collective levels: the first is one of nostalgia for the homeland left behind mingled with fear in a strange land. The second is a phase in which one is so busy adjusting to the new environment that there is little creative output. The third phase is when immigrants start taking part in the shaping of Diaspora existence by involving themselves in ethno- cultural issues. The fourth is when they have ‘arrived’ and start participating in the larger world of politics and national issues (22).

However, this obvious development in one’s consciousness depends upon the cultures one lives in. The diasporic person is at home neither in west nor in India and thus ‘unhomed’ in the most essential sense of the term.

Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry are two diasporic writers having the same origin with two different new homelands. Living in two different alien societies makes their writing fundamentally different even when they are treating the same theme. Rushdie has put the dilemma of diaspora in Imaginary Homelands that the position of the exile or immigrant is one of ‘profound uncertainties’. ‘To be unhomed is not to be homeless ‘as Homi K. Bhabha has pointed out in The Location of Culture. When the immigrant realises his homelessness, the world around him confined and squeezed and enlarged slowly afterwards. The unhomely moment of personal and collective consciousness disconnects one’s political existence. The personal and collective psychic trauma to the disconnected political existence is clearly evident in the writings of Rohinton Mistry. As Indians who now live and write from Canada and United Kingdom, Rohinton Mistry and Salman Rushdie are the writers of the Indian diaspora. Mistry is a Parsi Zoroastrian and his ancestors were forced into exile by the Islamic conquest of Iran; he was in diaspora even in India. This kind of multiple displacement is reflected in his writing. His first novel Such a Long Journey is prefaced with three epigraphs that evoke a mystical quest motif like that of the Holy Grail. The Parsis’ quest for their roots, their past, their heritage is established even before the text itself begins. The first epigraph is from Firdausi’s Shah Nama, the second from T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and the third from Rabindra Nath Tagore’s Gitanjali. The lines from the Shah Nama recall the Persian imperial past of the Zoroastrian Parsi community to which Mistry belongs. The two other quotations concentrate on the continuous journey that is dominant in the identity crisis of diasporic consciousness. On the other hand, Salman Rushdie belongs to Muslim community of India and was born on 20 June, 1947, two months before India got independence. This dilemma of being born in the midnight always shows his inclination towards Pakistan and obvious reluctance for India’s secular fiber. His choice for his new homeland, Britain, also seems quite obvious when he says in Imaginary Homelands: “I grew up with an intimate knowledge of, and even a sense of friendship with a certain kind of England; a dream England…I wanted to come to England. I couldn’t wait. And to be fair, England has done all right by me” (18).

In view of the writings of these two diasporic writers and their different diasporic consciousness, the two novels A Fine Balance of Rohinton Mistry and Midnight’s Children of Salman Rushdie have been taken up for analysis in the present study. India is viewed differently by them. The image of India has different shades and colours in the two novels. This paper aims to looking closely at these two novels to discover the image of India in the mind of two diasporic writers who have opted for two different new homelands. Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning book Midnight’s Children and Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal with the same central theme- the Emergency excesses of Indira Gandhi. The Emergency saw the suspension of the basic fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution of India. It was first to crush the opposition. Opposition and criticism are what all democratic governments have to contend with and crushing them means jeopardising the very foundations of the democracy. This is exactly what happened during the Emergency and for the very first time since India had been decolonised in 1947, democratic institutions were suspended; what followed was one of the most inglorious chapters in the Independent India’s history. Mistry’s A Fine Balance records this dark and shameful episode with unrelenting honesty. In an interview soon after the publication of this novel, Mistry stated, “It seemed to me that 1975, the year of Emergency would be the next important year, if one was preparing a list of important dates in Indian history. And so it was 1975” (19).

Both the novels open with a reference to Bombay. The first few lines of Midnight’s Children make the intention of the writer crystal clear:

I was born in the city of Bombay. . . once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters too. . . On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at Independence (9).

A Fine Balance is also a text in which Mistry has made a conscious effort to embrace more of the social reality of India. Although the novel opens with a Parsi woman- Dina Dalal’s story in Bombay, it soon enlarges its scope to include her lodger Maneck Kohlah from a hill station in North India and her tailors, Ishwar and Om Prakash who came to her from a village. The primary setting is Bombay ‘the dream city’ under the Emergency rule of 1975-77. In a flashback, the narration moves to faraway villages and towns, before, during and after Partition. The focus is on the Parsi community and the novel is considerably infected with what Saleem Sinai in the other great novel of the Emergency calls “an Indian disease, this urge to encapsulate the whole of reality” (94). As a novel, A Fine Balance centers on the four main characters: two middle-class Parsis and two Hindu untouchables. In Midnight’s Children, the hero Saleem Sinai is from minority community. Apart from the major characters from the Parsi and Muslim communities, scores of minor and middle characters comprise a varied social spectrum of mini India in both the novels: Muslim rent- collectors and tailors, doctors, lawyers, beggars, murderous strongmen, corrupt slumlords, police, radical students and above all the dominating appearances of Indira Gandhi herself.

Midnight’s Children is built almost entirely on such episodes from the fall of the British Empire to that of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule in India. The beauty of the narration and the presentation of these events is marvellous: either it is the death of Mian Abdullah the Hummingbird or Dr. Narlikar’s death in mob violence. Apart from Bombay, the cities like Srinagar, Amritsar, Delhi, Karachi, Dhaka and others make their appearance in the most dynamic manner. The image of India is depicted in its social and political reality. Saleem Sinai remembers not only the Bombay of his childhood but is even able to comment on each and every event that is socially, politically and culturally relevant. He can comment on the state’s Reorganisation Committee that submitted its report of Nehru in October 1955. India had been divided anew into fourteen states and six centrally administered territories. But, after independence, Saleem feels that “language divided us: Kerala was for speakers of Malayalam . . . in Karnataka you were supposed to speak Kanarere” (225). He also remembers the election of 1957. Murder, politics, elections, businessmen are all presented in the life- size manner. India becomes the central stage and all major and minor characters appear and disappear in order to make a real social and political collage of India. The description of the Bombay city is in fact the ‘imaginary homeland’ of Rushdie. With the progress of the story, the progress of the Indian struggle for Independence is also seen.

The history of India from 1919 to 1947is thus encapsulated, here in the form of the first book, out of the three books. The next book narrates the steady progress of Saleem Sinai, the bastard child of a Hindu mother and a British father. That speaks about the Indian history also. Politics, economy and society in India can be said to have had the similar progress. The language riots, the rising threat of communism to the Congress Party, the deteriorating influence of Congress, trials, elections, films- all of them find their way into the pages of the novel. But the writer leaves India and travels along with the members of the family to Karachi. The war between India and Pakistan takes place. Saleem Sinai is the most miserable victim. He has to discontinue his favourite job of eve- teasing and women- hunting. He loses his consciousness because of an Indian air- raid on Karachi. He comes back to consciousness to realise that the sole purpose of the war was to destroy his family completely. He says, “one by one the war eliminated my drained, hopeless family from earth” (411). Book third of the novel is a totally different book. It seems not a part of the main novel. In the first two parts, despite many difficulties and hurdles, the growth of Indian democracy is shown but the last part shows the ugly side for Indian democracy. Development is no more a priority of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Nehru and Shastri become irrelevant. ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’. The Bangladesh war takes place. Saleem Sinai by this time is completely a sub- human creature. He is a leader of a canine unit. His extraordinary telepathic progress is replaced by olfactory sense. The Pakistani government is clever enough to ‘utilise’ these talents of Saleem Sinai in order to find out and smell out Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Saleem has forgotten everything about his past, including his name. He is called the ‘Buddha’ because he has calm and quietness on his facial expression. He does his job sincerely. But, he misses his way on the Bay of Bengal and enters into the Sunderban Delta. A strange and wonderful event takes place. A snake bites him and he comes to his senses. This is like any other Bombay Hindi film. Suddenly, he realises his duty and whereabouts. He returns to Dhaka. He sees the arrival of the Indian soldiers, accompanied by a musical band and musicians. Parvarti- the- witch, one of the Midnight’s Children, recognises him and she takes him along with her back to Delhi, hidden in her magic basket.

Now the ugly and dirty side of Indian politics is shown by Rushdie. Saleem is again back to India. The scene is shifted to the slums of Delhi. Like Bombay, Delhi is not the ‘imaginary homeland’ of Rushdie. It is a political slum for him. Saleem’s marriage with Parvati- the- witch takes place. Mrs. Indira Gandhi has learnt about the children with miraculous gifts. She orders the arrest of all of them. Saleem is the first to be arrested and because of the torture of the police, he gives the list of remaining 580 children as out of the 1001 children, 420 were already dead because of diseases, famines, strikes and all other disasters. All of them are taken to tubectomy- sections and made impotent. Parvati-the- witch thinks it an honour to visit Shiva, the war hero, secretly and thus to conceive a child during the Emergency. But even that isolated life of poverty and misery in the slums is thought to be a luxury by Sanjay Gandhi and he is jealous of those slum- dwellers. The road-rollers, tractors and bulldozers level the slums with the ground. Again, Saleem turns to his ‘imaginary homeland’ Bombay. He is not alone here; from Delhi he has taken with him his son Ganesh- born of Shiva, the war hero and Parvati- the- witch. Parvati dies while giving birth to a child. Ganesh does not speak. In Bombay he has a good company of Padma, his co- worker. She finds in Saleem a hope for her sexual desires. Saleem warns her that he is foreseeing a total disintegration of his body before his thirty- first birthday. Even his warning cannot stop her from marrying him. Thus, this natural and unnatural ending gives a kaleidoscopic picture of real India with its ups and downs. Indian customs, films, mythology, politics, religion, slums, birth/ marriage/ death ceremonies, friendship, India from Kashmir to Bombay and the pre- Partition India from Karachi to Dacca with its variety of situations and shades are shown in the novel.

The main thematic fiber of Midnight’s Children and A Fine Balance is almost the same. The treatment of their homeland, i.e., India is the original area to provide the big social spectrum of the country. The street performer Monkey- man, whose feat of balancing children atop tall poles provides the cover page of A Fine Balance, provides the image of India that is always being sold to the West; the land of magic and the snake- charmers. Mistry’s depiction of Emergency turned “everything upside down. Black can be made white, day turned into night” (372). Goondas, police, family planning, oppressors and injustice are prominently featured in the novel. The ugly side of the Indian countryside is also shown effectively. Here the age- old caste oppressions continue to flourish, though Mistry’s knowledge about Indian rural life is always in doubt. The experience is second hand. Still, Mistry succeeds in maintaining a fine balance. It is this fine balance that if the persons concerned learn to master, helps them to lead a relatively peaceful happy life. If they fail, their life takes a U- turn. Dina as a young girl, a married woman, a young widow, constantly upsets the balance of patriarchy and has to pay for it in her truncated education, her husband’s death, the loss of her tailors, her home and ultimately her much prized independence. Dina, however, is a fighter and after every loss of balance, she clambers onto the knife- edge once again to once more achieve that ever- elusive fine balance. Maneck too has to learn how to ‘balance’ between the love of his parents, their mountain home and his need for independence. His sensitive nature fails to achieve a balance between a serene inner life and the outward turmoil of life in the city and has to pay for it with his life. Ishvar and Om have to balance between their own caste origins and their new darji status. There is also a fine balance in the life of nations and the Indian nation had lost that fine balance during the Emergency. But Indian democracy had compelled Mrs. Gandhi to call for fresh elections in which she and her party had been thrown out of office. The fine balance had ultimately been restored.

What makes Rohinton Mistry different from Rushdie is perhaps his ability to draw the reader into Emergency time of crisis. It permits the readers to feel the horrors and the holocaust of it. Certainly, both the novels have many interesting parallels. The social and the historical documentation of India, the image of Bombay as a city of social reality, the ‘Bombayya’ language, and the prophetic comprehensiveness. With the abstract symbols of Partition, the literal meaning of Indian history becomes clearer in Mistry. Rushdie’s novel is less directly involving, rather his description of Partition, Indo-Pak wars and Emergency seemed indirect and translated by the narrator from some history book. Sometimes, the novel looks like a scattered and fragmented bundle of dazzling performances, rather than collection of lives. Rushdie succeeded in sensitising the political event like the Emergency in Midnight’s Children, but Mistry’s A Fine Balance is no less politically charged. It is as engrossing and moving as any other good novel on Indian historical heritage. Everything- good or bad- finds its due place in both the novels. India is like this and one has to accept it.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Jain, Jasbir. Ed. Writers of the Indian Diaspora. Rupa, 1998.

Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey. McClelland and Stewart, 1991.

---. A Fine Balance. McClelland and Stewart, 1995.

Parekh, Bhiku. “Some Reflections on the Indian Diaspora”. Journal of Contemporary Thought. Penguin Publications, 1993. 

Parmeswaran, Uma. “Writing the Diaspora”. The Atlantic Literary Review, Vol. 1, 2, 2000.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Jonathan Cape, 1991.

---. Imaginary Homelands. Granta Books, 1992.