This is also published on my Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/851584737
A Fine Balance is, as the title suggests, a very fine book. Rohinton Mistry has written three novels, all of which have been shortlisted for the Booker, though it has been a while since his last one. A Fine Balance, however, is considered to be his magnum opus, and for good reason. This is a tapestry of pain and hardship which in no ideal scenario can you claim to ‘like’, but is written with such unflinching, brutal honesty and care for its characters that it acquires the unputdownable trait of a lot of thrillers.
The period is the mid-70’s and the place is India, in the ‘City by the Sea’ (an obvious reference to Bombay). Four lives come together in unexpected circumstances during the time of the Emergency under Indira Gandhi’s rule. There is Dina Dalal, a widow trying to make ends meet through her tailoring business and trying her best to refrain from asking help from her overbearing and judgmental brother, who is quite well off. After her father’s death, her ambitions of a medical career were dashed by the patriarchal norms imposed by her brother who took over the running of the household and tried to run her life. A short lived and blissful marriage to a partner of her choosing ends in sorrow and she goes through the decades in an indifference borne out of both trying to make it on her own as an independent woman and of a general disillusionment to life. Out of the blue, a chance presents itself to have the son of an old classmate, Maneck, to be her paying guest and she grabs it. Maneck grew up in relatively idyllic surroundings in the mountains but was witness to the slow degradation of both nature and of his family (and their general store) as a result of the burgeoning commercial and construction boom which started encroaching the pristine paradise. Sent by his father to the big city to take up a course in Refrigeration and Air Conditioning, Maneck harbors a resentment against his parents for sending him away and for refusing to grasp even the rudimentary ideas of progress which he suggested for their family store. Events in the college and hostel only serve to further dampen his attitude towards life in general.
Ishwar and Omprakash Darji are the two tailors who Dina finds to run her unauthorized business of making dresses for an export company. Their path to the city was one riddled with caste violence and tragedy in the remote village they came from. Tanners by birth and by caste, Ishwar’s father made the daring decision to send his sons to the town to get trained as tailors so that they can finally break away from the vicious cycle of oppression the higher castes enforce on them. The denouement of this was a tragedy which engulfed the entire family apart from Ishwar and Om. Initially suspicious of each other and their intentions, the four slowly form an indelible bond and despite their hardships and differences, start to live together in moments of bliss and familial bonding. A rich stream of supporting characters add to this patchwork of lives lived on the fringes, and each character is given a pivotal part in the story and completely fleshed out characterizations. By the end of the book, each of them have imprinted themselves in our psyche.
I cannot imagine anyone not being moved by this story of impending doom and gloom. We learn to live with these four and imbibe their lives and hope desperately for their happy ending, which we know within ourselves is not to be. The moments shared by them as they try to find moments of happiness and a sense of belonging while living together in Dina’s flat is a testament to the vast cultural isolation a lot of people in the modern world go through living in concrete jungles of teeming millions. The sea of humanity around us seems to numb us further from the humanity which resides somewhere deep within us. We can try to live, love and attain a sense of worth in this world, but at the end of the day the moments of pure bliss are but fleeting pinpoints drifting away in our memory as time continues its relentless march onwards trampling everything else underneath.
Reading this book made me want to reach into the story and set it all straight for them, let their dreams be realized and continue living in that happy cocoon they briefly find. But Mistry is not an author to let you get away that easily. As is said at the start – ‘But rest assured: This tragedy is not a fiction. All is True.’
It definitely is. And we know it. But we keep going. We endure. For what else can we do?
A brilliant book.