On 26 June 1975 Indira Gandhi, then Indian prime minister, declared a state of emergency. She told the nation that it was threatened by “internal disturbances”.
The emergency was an excuse for the government to mount a full scale attack on the poor.
While freedom of speech was suspended and political activity outlawed, “beautification programmes” smashed the shanty towns, forcing their inhabitants into labour camps.
This is the background to Rohinton Mistry’s outstanding novel, A Fine Balance, which has just been adapted for the stage.
In Bombay, we follow the lives of four characters. The tailors Ishvar and Om are low caste “untouchables”, while Maneck is a student from a small village in northern India. Together they are lodgers in a ramshakle flat rented by the widow Dina.
She is from a wealthy Parsi family and maintains tenuous independence from her brother by employing the tailors to make clothes for export.
In a society where millions are battling to survive, the lives of the four central characters are precariously balanced.
Among the poverty and degradation, Mistry reveals a spirit of warmth and unity among the poor, who are shown as resilient against all odds.
Yet powerlessness can reduce human beings to actions that degrade them. Mistry’s great skill is to be able to explain how good people are driven to do bad things.
Part of the novel’s success results from the way it wields an enormous cast of fully rounded characters.
Unfortunately, the play has had to reduce much of this to shorthand, making some of the plot and the personalities appear truncated.
Nevertheless, the set, sound and most of the performances are of a high standard. Sudha Bhuchar, who adapted the book, is superb as Dina. It is excellent to see an “Asian drama” performed by an Asian company at a mainstream threatre.
Those who have not read the book will be touched by the portrayal of incredible human solidarity in difficult circumstances.
Those who are already devotees of the book will be reminded of why A Fine Balance is such a fine novel.
A Fine Balance
Directed by Kristine Landon-Smith
Hampstead Theatre, London