A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
“With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.
As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.”
I read this as part of the Post Colonial Literatures module I’m taking- it’s a big book! At just over 600 pages I knew I needed to get started on this as early as possible.
So, I started it in February… and finished it on April 24th, the night before the lecture/seminar on it. Oops!
Why did it take me so long? It’s not something I would necessarily pick up and read if it weren’t for my degree, so I deliberately wanted to give myself plenty of time, so I didn’t need to rush it or feel too pressured to finish it. I have a nasty habit of digging in my heels..
..and what did I think?
Where to start- Narrative Style – I went into this book with the shadow of Rushdie’s Mightnight’s Children still looming. Mistry could not have a more different approach. There’s much more of a realist about Mistry which made for a straightforward read, at least. There were no strange metaphors nor any grand, sweeping imagery to try to interpret. It’s more ‘symbolic’ than ‘say what?’
Mistry does this thing of making a microcosm of characters, living and moving within the same space and the action is often subtle.. but as one of my classmates pointed out, it’s those smaller expressions and moments that have bigger repercussions.
Characters – This was my biggest issue with this book. It’s wonderfully written. For sure. But I didn’t find myself caring very much for any of the characters. The only one I did.. died.. quite early on. Gutted.
Ishvar and Om – These two village-to-city tailors have some great exchanges. Uncle and nephew, and it is this relationship that eventually spells out their demise methinks.
Dina – I really enjoyed the story of her earlier years. The older Dina was difficult for me.. but I did warm up to her again at the end.
Maneck – Oh. Maneck. A character of quiet acceptance. I think he frustrated me the most because of all of them, he has the greatest opportunity to progress and move forward with his life.. and yet he chooses not to. He literally chooses to take all choice out of the matter.
Many of the ‘secondary’ characters I found more compelling than the protagonists. Shankar, Beggarmaster, even the big bad brother Nusswan!
Slippery Meaning – Mistry, I felt, was playing a tricky game within the narrative. There are some recurring motifs (hair, sewing/tailoring, trains) and just when you think you’ve found a reason or a meaning behind it, it slips from your fingers. There is something almost non-committal or completely random about it.. and yet.. Is it?
I didn’t connect to the story very well, however. The moments of extremes (the labour camp, the visit to the village at the end, the voting sequence near the beginning) were really compelling.. but for me, the story begins well and ends well, and the middle is all much of a muchness.
India? The Emergency? – Because of the acute focus I felt like you could lift the story and place it down in any country at any particular time of crisis. Change the names, the cultural no-nos, and you’d be there. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing though- I think that’s part of its trickery. Because a country, a nation, is made of its people. It’s the interpersonal problems that come out of the contemporary context that matter the most, no?
A clever book. A very readable book. And I can see how and why it needs to win itself a lot of awards and praise, but ultimately, I found it a little dull.
That said, I’m going to give this a sincere 3 out of 5 because there is much in it that I can admire, but it wasn’t what I was expecting at all.