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Three years ago I packed a rucksack and headed to India. Travelling alone, and with a broken heart, I knew books would be an essential part of my trip.
At Heathrow, scanning the bookshops, I couldn’t bring myself to dive into Indian literature just yet – I needed the familiarity of a novel set in my own country to settle my nerves. So I compromised: I bought Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone, and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. I read O’Farrell during my first few days in Mumbai, comforted by its Britishness, as I slowly adjusted to this new country.
Two months later when India had seeped under my skin, I picked up Mistry’s novel. And in an instant, the pleasure of reading a book set in a country you are in hit me.
Everywhere I turned were people, places and experiences lifted directly from its pages. The skinny teenage boy who sold me a chai and laughed at my freckles was Om, one of the novel’s four protaganists. The bookish young man on a bike who stopped to talk to me was Maneck. Even the first sentence described every train journey I had taken:
“The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limits.” I was enthralled.
The novel is set during the Emergency in the mid-1970s, a period marked by huge political unrest and human rights violations, including detention, torture and forced sterilisation. Indira Gandhi is never named, just referred to as the “prime minister”, but she is a sinister presence.
Shortly after starting the novel, I found myself in conversation with a twinkly elderly man, the owner of an antique shop. We talked over tea, and he rummaged in a drawer and brought out an old photograph: himself as a young man standing with a group including a smiling young woman. “Indira Gandhi,” he said. “She visited here in 1956.” I couldn’t equate the attractive woman in the picture with the virtual dictator described in the book.
A great novel can transport you from one country to another. But reading one in its home country does something greater still. Being in India intensified my joy at this vast, heartbreaking and compassionate book, and it in turn deepened my experience of India.
I read many other great books during my trip – memorably Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, and Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater. But A Fine Balance reminded me of the value of family and friendship. Although it is bleak, I found it hopeful, too, and it sent me home considerably lighter than when I arrived.