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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]

Reading Notes: Tears

If you haven’t voted, please visit my poll.

When was the last time you cried over a book? The blurb of A Fine Balance says the novel “captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India” with a realism that recalls the work of Charles Dickens. That I have just finished a Dickens novel is a sheer coincidence. But Dickens’s realism of the French Revolution doesn’t prepare me emotion-wise for this book, which is set the 1970s India, when the struggle to dehumanize those of the lowest caste was still rife. Men, women, and children—locked up in the house, bound flesh licked by flames. The reason for this agonized punishment: breaching the timeless caste system. Before I knew, tears trickled down my face and frolicked with the ink of my pen in swirls on my journal. Read this book.