Sometimes compared to Dickens or Victor Hugo for the strength of his descriptions, Rohinton Mistry uses "ordinary" men and women as his protagonists and fills his novels with the sights, sounds, smells, and color of India. Depicting his characters as neither saints nor sinners, he involves the reader in their lives as they try to survive the complexities of their culture.
In this novel, Gustad Noble and his wife Dilnavaz, living in a congested apartment building in Bombay, try to lead good lives and inspire their children during Indira Gandhi's rule in the 1970s, with all its political, professional, and social upheaval. India is on the verge of war with the Muslims of Pakistan, and though Gustad, a Parsi, is aware of political chicanery, he is far more pre-occupied with having his son accepted at a school of technology, doing his job as a bank supervisor, and supporting his family. Constant blackouts and continually deteriorating conditions on the street add to the frustrations of Gustad's life.
Then Jimmy Bilimoria, an old friend, asks Gustad for help, claiming that he is training freedom fighters in Bangladesh to act on behalf of the Indian government against Pakistani "butchers." Gustad reluctantly agrees to use his position at the bank to deposit money to a secret account, but he soon finds himself enmeshed in a spiral from which he cannot break out, his life turned upside down.
Throughout the novel, the wall outside Gustad's apartment building symbolizes the larger world of Bombay and parallels some aspects of Gustad's own life. At the outset, it is used as a latrine, breeding illness in the neighborhood but keeping the noise and tumult of the street out of the apartment house. When Gustad persuades a sidewalk artist to paint it, he depicts scenes from all the religions of India, and the wall becomes a shrine--until the government decides to widen the road and tear it down. Gustad's personal crisis and the fate of the wall intersect in a conclusion both moving and profound.
Though this novel lacks the grand scale of A Fine Balance, it is a beautifully constructed and emotionally involving story of a small family trying to live meaningful lives against almost overwhelming odds. The characters are finely drawn, and the plot, though not "exciting," reflects the traumas of an ordinary man and his wife caught up in events and crises not of their own making. Wry and often humorous in its observations of people and circumstances, this early novel by Mistry has all the ingredients which make his later novels so memorable. Mary Whipple