Rohinton Mistry's powerful 1995 novel A Fine Balance concludes with the story of the State of Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from June 1975 to March 1977. Ishvar and his nephew Om, the novel's protagonists, undergo all the horrors of Gandhi's Emergency – violent displacements, arrests, and forced “family planning” procedures – all in the name of progress and modernity. In the novel's climax, the two men are captured and sent to a sterilization camp. Om, in retribution for defiantly spitting at the local racketeer who had murdered his father, is castrated; Ishvar undergoes a “nussbandi” (vasectomy) operation, but the sterilization procedure – simple and painless according to government spokesmen – goes terribly wrong: gangrene spreads through Ishvar's legs, which are then duly amputated. By the time they return from the camp, Om and Ishvar discover that their friend and benefactor, Ashraf Chacha, has been beaten to death.
Yet the trains run on time throughout, creating an evident tension between the Emergency – by definition a period of crisis, of irregular and unusual events – and the stable, recurring regularity of the trains' strange punctuality. Indeed, the entire chapter narrating these utmost horrors (climactic even within this unrelenting novel) is permeated with an odd sense of regularity, stability, commensurability, and cyclicality. It begins, appropriately enough, with the arrival of the train carrying Om and Ishvar into town. To their surprise, their friend is there to meet them:
“How did you know we were coming today?”
“I didn't,” he smiled. “But I knew it would be this week. And the train rolls in at the same hour every day.” (Mistry, Fine 505)
We would like to thank Franziska Tsufim and Valeria Khaskin for their assistance with the research for this chapter, which was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 236/12).
This image of Ashraf Chacha at the railway station establishes the iterative mood of the entire chapter, where an event described only once (Chacha waiting at the train station) evokes a regular repetition of the selfsame event (the men soon realize that Chacha waited there, at the same time, every day of the week). Indeed, depicting the city, the people, or the weather, the chapter is replete with images characterized by successive cyclical repetitions.