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[284] A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

So what was the point of possessing memory? It didn’t help anything. In the end it was all hopeless . . . Everything ended badly. And memory only made it worse, tormenting and taunting. Unless. Unless you lost your mind. Or committed suicide.” [8.2 330]

A Fine Balance is a roiling swirl of humanity. Adopting the voice of an epic rather than polemic, the novel captures the sufferings of the outcasts and innocents who try to survive the “State of Emergency” in 1970s when, under Indira Gandhi, India becomes a country ruled by thugs who maim and kill for money and power. It depicts a time when bribery is rife, starvation ubiquitous, and artificial calamity incessant. Set in a nameless city that is induced to be Mumbai (Bombay), the book is a realism of squalid streets teeming with beggars, where politicians and bureaucrats, in the name of progress, abuse the poor and the powerless.

To listen to the things happening in our lifetime is like drinking venom—it poisons my peace. Every day I pray that this evil cloud over our country will lift, that justice will take care of these misguided people. [15.1 511]

Typical victims of the times are the four protagonists of diverse backgrounds. Dina Dalal, in her early 40s, poor and widowed after only three years of marriage, struggles to stay ahead of squalor. She relinquishes the idea to re-marry since the memory of her husband never loses the rawness. Maneck Kohlah is the son of an old school friend of Dina’s. He stays at Dina’s as a paying guest while he attends college in the city. He comes from a family that lost its fortune when Partition of India took place. The two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, who find employment with Dina, are members of the untouchable caste. As these strangers cross path and share a tranquil happiness, they come to embrace life’s despair with a submission powered by resilience of human spirits. Whenever the pain living surfaces, they summon what little happy memory to counterbalance their despair, the thoughts of rejection, and loneliness.

What is this disease? . . . This disease . . . is the notion of untouchability, ravaging us for centuries, denying dignity to our fellow human beings. This disease must be purged from our society, from our hearts, and from our minds. [3.1 107]

As the tailors trust their companions with poignant bits of their past, story of the horrifying caste violence is revealed in an unbearably disturbing wholeness. Om is the the last of his family line, surviving the family’s extermination for breaching and distorting society’s inveterate balance. Cobbers turned tailors, but the timeless chain of caste is not to be broken easily. It’s the backbone of the society. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of human spirits, full of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, in the face of pervasive misery.

Did life treat everyone so wantonly, ripping the good things to pieces while letting bad things fester and grow like fungus on unrefrigerated food? . . . it was all part of living, that the secret of survival was to balance hope and despair, to embrace change. [12.1 432]

The book is an indictment of a corrupt and ineluctably cruel society, combining sympathy for the poor and the controlled outrage for the corrupted. The struggles of the protagonists, along with absurd ways undertaken by many to scrape a living, hold our attention throughout the novel, where Mistry succeeds in balancing his desire to create a moving tragedy with his strong impulse toward political and social commentary.

603 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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35 Responses

  1. i love love love this book. it is one of my all time favorites.

    great review!

  2. This sounds like a must read. It’s apparently very well known, but I had never heard of it, so thank you for the review.

  3. This is one of my favourite quotes from this novel:
    “After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents – a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life.” I’m sure lots of people have avoided it because of its sheer size, but it’s so absorbing that it reads very quickly.

    • The writing is ponderous and crisp, and not only that it captures my attention the whole time, it delves into humanity so deeply that it touches my heart.

  4. Dear Sir,

    This is one of my favorite books of many, many years–perhaps one of my favorite ever. Everything in it, from the seller of hair, to the Beggar Master has power. And I am particularly compelled by one phrase of the seller of hair, in which he refers to the Americans’ (and Europeans’) fear of baldness, “They have so much money they fear very silly things.” That sums up the world of this book, where the fear is real and so is the love, devotion, and attachment.

    shalom,

    Steven

    • All the characters make a deep impression on me. They’re all tossed into the world in which calamity and misfortune have no end.

  5. This sounds like a wonderful epic on a sweeping scale. I haven’t read much Indian literature, but your review of this really makes me want to rectify that.

    • Mistry has definitely changed the tide on me with Indian literature. I have made a few attempts to read The God of Small Things, which I never finished. This one for sure will join the league of contemporary classics.

      • The God of Small things was my favourite book until I read this. TGST is a smaller, fragmented book with a circular narrative – but the interweaving of narratives, issue of untouchability and caste violence, poignant characters and the balance of hopelessness and despair is very similar to A Fine Balance. I urge you to read TGST – I loathed it on first reading, because the narrative construction made it so difficult to comprehend, unlike A Fine Balance which I flew through. But I’ve never read a novel more times now than TGST and now am studying it as part of my undergraduate degree. Would love to hear your opinion on it.

  6. Another glowing review of A Fine Balance! I have to stop being so intimidated and read it already! Plus, nice use of the word “ineluctable”. That is a word that does not get nearly as much play as I feel it deserves.

    • I feel that bad luck is in play as soon as some of these characters were born. Their social class didn’t help either. It’s all a game in which they are bound to lose but have no other way than to play along with it. It is truly ineluctable.

  7. I love that description “roiling mass of humanity”. That says it all. What an ambitious book that seem to have hit the mark. It’s going down on the list.

  8. This is my favourite book so I’m really pleased to see that you enjoyed it and that you have persuaded a few more people to add it to their lists!

    • My pleasure. I am glad to see so many readers love this book. Although it’s very sad and poignant, it is also so true to life.

  9. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book Matt. I just knew that you would write something beautiful about the book when you were done with it, and you did.

  10. I’ve added this to my to-reads list. I just finished taking a Developing World class in which we briefly discussed India’s caste system. My instructor recommended the book The White Tiger to students interested in reading more about it. I’ve got it from the library, and it seems hilarious.. and yet tragic. Read it?

    • I was just thinking about The White Tiger when I was writing this review. A Fine Balance is less of a satire although it exposes a lot of the corruption and cruelty of the country during the 1970s. I find The White Tiger funny and sarcastic. A Fine Balance is just plain poignant.

  11. Hmm, my book club is thinking about reading this and now you’ve made me think we should!

    • A Fine Balance is what I call a human condition novel. It’s in the same league as the works of Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, and Jose Saramago.

  12. This book has opened my eyes to those living in third world countries, trying to make it happen, struggling. I loved this book. I also really liked “Family Matters”, but I liked this one more, mainly because it had more drama. The awful awful step by step struggles, page by page (at times hard to read), I really feel these people are, or were real. And the way the author writes, distant yet intimate, like a journalist without leaving out the amazing descriptions! Superb writing and story telling, as well as making an important statement about crimes on humanity.
    I also just finished “Dispatches” by Michael Herr and reminds me of this book in the descriptions of violence, history – really stick in your mind the horrors that people have inflicted on one another.

    • It’s very true to life and I do feel like reading page after page of journalistic revelations. Instead of adopting the vocie of a social commentary, Mistry gives us a story that is both an indictment and assessment of a society that is cruel and corrupted.

  13. A really good book, probably… I let down my reading (in french) within the first hundred pages… Perhaps th translation was not really good, perhapsI was not in the good mood for such a novel!

    • It’s amazing to see how the different lives converge as the story reveals more of their relations. I also enjoy how Mistry takes time to develop and write about the details of each character.

  14. I just read this book too recently. The year hasn’t ended but I think it could be my book of the year. It’s definitely at the top there with my favorite books of all time!

  15. […] like to pick it up just for her thoughts. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  This was reviewed by Matt over at A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook.  He says: “A Fine Balance is a roiling […]

  16. Matt, I’ve never seen anyone dislike this book (among bloggers). I also plan to read this. Mistry lives in the same town I do, so I kind of feel guilty that I haven’t read him. 🙂

  17. […] A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry: As the characters move from distrust to friendship and friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of human spirits, full of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, in the face of pervasive misery. […]

  18. […] A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry. The book is an indictment of a corrupt and ineluctably cruel society, combining sympathy for the poor and the controlled outrage for the corrupted. The struggles of the protagonists, along with absurd ways undertaken by many to scrape a living, hold our attention throughout the novel, where Mistry succeeds in balancing his desire to create a moving tragedy with his strong impulse toward political and social commentary. […]

  19. […] saddest book you read in 2010: A Fine Balance Rohinton […]

  20. I just finished reading this great book…I loved your phrase …’a roiling swirl of humanity’. So deeply human…beautiful and ugly. I loved this book. Great review.

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