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A while ago, I was watching a series that celebrated world book day; 'My life in books' (presented by Anne Robinson!), where various well known people in the public eye talked about their favourite books. One of the ones I put on my 'to-read' list was this; A fine balance. The person referring to it talked about how great the writing was. My sister and mum read it before me and said that I definitely HAD too read it, so I took their recommendation. When they were reading it, they couldn't resist making references to it, and from their reactions when they had finished, I inferred that overall it was a sad book, so I prepared myself mentally!
My copy is a free world book night copy.
The novel tells the story of four main characters: a widow, two tailors and a student,who all end up trying to help each other survive the trials and tribulations of life in the underclass of Bombay during the state of emergency imposed by then-president Indira Gandhi. It is set in the 1970s
As someone with a South-Asian background, this book was of interest to me. I am quite ignorant when it comes to history, so had to do some background reading about 'the emergency' and asked my mum to give me some insight too.
I think it would help to have some background before reading the book, so here's the wikipedia link (since everyone doesn't have access to a history book :) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emergen​cy_(India)
Paperback: 614 pages
Publisher: Faber and Faber
First published: 1997
Product Dimensions: 19.4 x 12.6 x 4.6 cm
A kindle edition is available for £5.12 at the time of writing. The kindle version is good for this book as you can search (e.g for characters, if you have forgotten who they are or where they were mentioned before) and obviously, as the book is over 600 pages, it's a bit on the heavy side to carry around.
I've tried to include excerpts of the book to give a flavour of what it's like but rest assured, I haven't given it all away!
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Rohinton Mistry was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India in 1952. He graduated with a degree in Mathematics from the University of Bombay in 1974, and emigrated to Canada with his wife the following year, settling in Toronto, where he worked as a bank clerk, studying English and Philosophy part-time at the University of Toronto and completing his second degree in 1982.
All of his novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; A Long Journey (1991), A Fine Balance (1995), and Family Matters (2002). All are set in India's Parsee community.
in 2012, he won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature..
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Who would enjoy the book?
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*is interested in learning about the dark side of the real India
*can appreciate dark humour
*wants an easily readable but well written book that will get them thinking
*has a stable state of mind, as parts of this book are really distressing and depressing!
I think it was Toni Morrison who, when speaking about her book, 'the bluest eye', said she wanted people to be not just touched, but moved (into action) by what they read. I have a feeling that this is what Mistry wants people to get from this book too.
The epigraph prepares you for what you are going to read:
Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true."
- Honoré de Balzac, Le Père Goriot
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'In 1975, in an unidentified Indian city, Mrs Dina Dalal, a financially pressed Parsi widow in her early 40s sets up a sweatshop of sorts in her ramshackle apartment. Determined to remain financially independent and to avoid a second marriage (at the urging of her controlling brother), she takes in a boarder and two tailors to sew dresses for an export company. As the four share their stories, then meals, then living space, human kinship prevails and the four become a kind of family, despite the lines of caste, class and religion. When tragedy strikes, their cherished, new-found stability is threatened, and each character must face a difficult choice in trying to salvage their relationships.
(adapted from Amazon.co.uk)
The plot is definitely a strong one, though a lot of people might not like it. Looking back, there were a lot of clues that indicated what would happen at the end, but there were still a lot of surprises, and some unexpected coincidences.
The chapters are separated to concentrate on the different characters. There are a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards, but I didn't find the structure of the book confusing
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I don't think I've ever read a book where the characters are so realistic. They have all really stayed with me, and each character changes and develops very definitely throughout the book, through becoming older and through their experiences. This is even true of the sub characters.
The main characters are:
Dina Shroff (Dina Dalal after she marries) - an attractive, headstrong, middle-class widow who has rebelled and become independent Her brother is the only family she has left. She depends on him in times of need, but starts a life of her own as an independent employer of tailors whom she has hired to make clothes for an export company. She really dislikes her brother. She also finds it difficult to know exactly what her boundaries should be with the tailors: The evolution of Dina's relationship with the tailors is one of my favourite aspects of the book
Ishvar Darji (a soft hearted, wise and cheerful soul) and Omprakash "Om" Darji (Ishvar's nephew, who is almost perpetually angry and resentful), were born in what is considered the lowest caste of chamaars, or tanners/leather workers - 'untouchables' which is transgressed by their family by them being trained in the neighbouring town as tailors. They end up heading to the city to find work, and eventually find employment with Dina Dalal
Maneck Kohlah, a Parsi teenager from an idyllic childhood in a mountainous village in northern India. moves to the city to acquire a college certificate as a back-up in case his father's business can't keep up after a highway is built near their village. He eventually moves into Dina's flat as a boarder for the duration of his studies. Maneck starts off life innocent and naive, and the transition to city life, and being sent away by his parents, and his consequently feeling they wanted to get rid of him is hard for him. He becomes quite bitter:
'Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated - not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair, that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain. So what was the point of possessing memory? It didn't help anything. In the end it was all hopeless (...) No amount of remembering happy days, no amount of yearning or nostalgia could change a thing about the misery and suffering - love and concern and caring and sharing come to nothing, nothing. Maneck began to weep, his chest heaving as he laboured to keep silent. Everything ended badly. And memory only made it worse, tormenting and taunting.'
There are quite a few subcharacters too. Some of the ones I found interesting (I won't tell you all of them, as it's interesting to discover them throughout the book)
Rajaram, a hair collector (his job title). He is Ishvar and Om's neighbour in the slum. His story throughout the book is really interesting.
Shankar, also known as 'worm' - a beggar with no limbs, who gets around by wheeling himself on a gurney type contraption. Shankar is a character who I really liked, as he was cheerful and amusing. 'Beggarmaster' is in charge of him.
Beggarmaster, who wears his briefcase chained to his wrist (powerful symbolism again), He is like the pimp of the' the beggars in the city. He makes what he calls 'professional modifications' to them to make the most money out of them, which is really horrifying, but something which I know goes on in South Asian countries, as when you go there, you see a disproportionate amount of beggars with their limbs amputated in the same place. Really terrible, but true. It is interesting that we never find out Beggarmaster's name. The sub-plot with Beggarmaster and Shankar is absolutely fascinating
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Quality of writing
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The book reminded me a bit of 'animal farm' by George Orwell, but the political comparisons and references are not so clear cut, though definitely present. In forum discussions about the book, some people have suggested that Dina represents India (with her struggle for independence), there is reference to a partition in part of the book, and one of the characters is called Narayan, whose role seems representative of he Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan, who sought to direct action against the government through non violent civil resistance. There are many more comparisons to be drawn, but I'll have to gen up on my Indian history, and read the book again to see them.
It was also reminiscent of Dickens' storytelling in the length, the number of characters, the way the story flowed, amongst other aspects. Not in optimism, however!
Let's just say that books as exquisitely written yet easy to read and understand as this are few and far between. In style, I would compare it to 'The book thief' by Markus Zusak maybe.
The very first passage demonstrates this well:
"The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train's brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limit"
I also liked the passage containing the title of the book:
"You see, you cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair."
The text is full of language devices and symbolism, and even though the book is a decent length (614 pages), it didn't take me long to read, as I really wanted to know what happened, and none of it felt unnecessary or forced.
For example, the conversation between Maneck and Mr Valmik on the train:
'But too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart, as my favourite poet has written'
'W.B Yeats. And I think that sometimes normal behaviour has to be suppressed, in order to carry on.
I'm not sure. Wouldn't it be better to respond honestly instead of hiding it? Maybe if everyone in the country was angry or upset, it might change things, force the politicians to behave properly.
The man's eyes lit up at the challenge, relishing the opportunity to argue. ' In theory, yes, I would agree with you. But in practice, it might lead to the onset of more major disasters. Just try to imagine six hundred million raging, howling, sobbing humans. Everyone in the country - including airline pilots, engine drivers, bus and tram conductors - all losing control of themselves. What a catastrophe. Aeroplanes falling from the skies, trains going off the tracks, boats sinking, buses and lorries and cars crashing. Chaos. Complete chaos.'
He paused to give Maneck's imagination time to fill in the details of the anarchy he had unleashed. 'And please also remember: scientists haven't done any research on the effects of mass hysteria and mass suicide upon the environment. Not on this subcontinental scale. If a butterfly's wings can create atmospheric disturbances halfway round the world, who knows what might happen in our case. Storms? Cyclones? Tidal waves? What about the land mass, would it quake in empathy? Would the mountains explode? What about rivers, would the tears from twelve hundred million eyes cause them to rise and flood?
He took another sip from the green bottle. 'No, it's too dangerous. Better to carry on in the usual way'
The dialogue is all very realistic too. Mistry's philosophy background is apparent in the writing. The characters are all obviously Indian, and being able to speak the language, I could appreciate the strength of how Mistry managed to convey the Indian manner of speaking, while not making the characters sound like they lacked articulacy. The style of language is beautiful, almost poetic.
There are a few terms that people unfamiliar with the language may not understand e.g 'haahnji' means yes, puja is a type of prayer ceremony, paanwallah is a person who sells paan (a preparation of betel leaf combined with areca nut and/or cured tobacco)
I would recommend this book to almost everyone. I now intend to read the rest of Mistry's books!
Rohinton Mistry - A Fine Balance
This book is published by Faber and Faber 2006 reprint and the ISBN-13: 978-0571230587 . Available from Amazon for a variety of prices from 9p used plus P&P. Mine was a really great find through book crossing so was free and I have since passed it on to my daughter in London.
I tend to be attracted to books set in foreign places or written by authors from other countries as I love finding out about different places as well as other cultures and beliefs. I read the blurb on the back having first been attracted by the cover and then I decided it as one I might enjoy.
I had not heard of Rohinton Mistry before picking this book up but I will certainly be looking for his other books when I have space on my 'to be read' shelf again. Mistry was born in 1952 and grew up in Bombay, where he also attended university. In 1975 he moved to Canada and took a course in English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Acclaims for "A Fine Balance"
This was his second novel written in1995 and it won many impressive literary awards, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the Giller Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.
Praise from the 'New York Times':
"Those who continue to harp on the decline of the novel ought to . . . consider Rohinton Mistry," wrote the New York Times. "He needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is magical."
On to the book itself:
The novel is set in India around the time of the State of Emergency in the 1970s which was imposed by Indira Gandhi. The political situation is described through the lives of four individuals, a widow, two tailors and a student. We see how the political situation affects the lives of these four people.
With the background of this awful political unrest where thoughtless decisions caused religious slaughter and cruel destruction of people's homes, sterilization policies and other horrors we would find it difficult to believe ordinary Indian people tried to carry on living. In these precarious circumstances, four characters form an unlikely alliance: two tailors of the untouchable caste, Ishvar Darji, his nephew Omprakash Darji, who have come to the city in flight from the cruel caste violence in their native village; Mrs Dina Dalal, a financially challenged Parsi widow in her 40s who is desperately trying to preserve her fragile independence from her controlling brother; and a young student Maneck Kohlah from the northern mountains who has come to board with Dina Dalal while attending university.
This unlikely group of people come together through the force of circumstances and become financially dependent upon each other initially reluctantly but after some time their lives become even more entwined.
The story begins on a train with the two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash, on their way to the flat of Dina Dalal to get some tailoring work. While travelling they meet a college student named Maneck Kohlah, who unknown to them is also on his way to the flat of Dina Dalal to be a boarder. They become friends and go to Dina's flat together. Dina hires Ishvar and Om for piecework, and Maneck stays with her as a lodger. Dina reflects on her past and how she came from a traditionally wealthy family and is now trying to maintain her independence from her controlling brother and living in the flat of her deceased husband, who was a chemist.
The tailors Ishvar and Omprakash are part of the Chamaar caste, traditionally they cured leather, collecting animal carcasses and were considered untouchable. They had improved their lot as Ishvar's father sent away his sons Ishvar and Narayan to a Muslim tailor in a nearby village, and so they became tailors. These tailoring skills are passed on to Ishvar's brother's son Omprakash (Om). Ishvar and Om have to move to Mumbai to get work because a pre-made clothing shop has opened in their local town.
While the young boys are with the Muslim tailor race riots break out and there is mutual slaughter of Hindus and Muslims after Partition (1947), during this time the young boys save Ashraf and his family from religious slaughter of Muslims in the area. This is just one of the many shocking experiences these characters are put through.
Throughout the novel the political changes reap havoc and cause such intense repercussions for our characters and other s they are connected with in the story. It is the story of India and the awful period in her history told through the lives of ordinary people. The story really only works because of the spiritual beliefs of the Indian people that suffering is their destiny and their reward will come in the afterlife. The story reflects the prejudices of the upper castes and the fatalistic attitude of the lower castes.
Throughout the book I was drawn to the very real characters and their often shocking plight. At every turn of the page the reader is shown a moving and emotional insight into the lives of India's street beggars and how even at this level there is a hierarchy. The portrayal of corruption throughout the book which was deeply entrenched into every section of life in 1970-80's India leaves the reader with a sense of injustice and helplessness. You constantly read on hoping that things will get better but in fact they only get worse.
At one time Dina tells Ishvar;
"Government problems and games played by people in power. It doesn't affect ordinary people like us". But this whole book sadly is about how in fact these 'games' do affect every one of them and changes their lives completely.
The characters flounder from one tragedy to another and although this is a shocking and quite depressing story there was a sense of humour which lightened the shock of some of the events. Despite the really horrific things that happen to the characters in the book they keep going and you never hear them moan or feeling sorry for themselves. They are too busy surviving the horrors that life throws at them about which they repeatedly say "This is only a small obstacle" surely showing the ultimate faith of these downtrodden people.
Mistry manages to inject just sufficient humour and wit into the situations and the descriptions of events to relieve the tension that could otherwise drag the reader down too deep. It is a testament to Mistry's writing skill that he can make you smile or even laugh at something in the midst of something quite shocking by just observing something quite small. The description of the beggarmaster's funeral with its procession of lame and deformed beggars is an example of this humour in a tragic situation.
Despite the harrowing story, the novel is also uplifting in a peculiar way; that individuals who struggle so hard to exist in appalling conditions can find joy in their lives is humbling. Throughout the story nothing is glossed over, we feel the shock, pain, fear and love of the characters through the events that they experience. The writing is full of rich descriptive images but is in no way clichéd. The story is told sensitively through the lives of the characters. The author is never clumsy,his writing is in a class of its own almost poetic in his descriptions and images created.
You can see the mountains, smell the poverty, taste the food, feel the pain and hear the cries. This is no 'happy ever after' read it is about real people and in life unfortunately' The Goodies' don't always win. This book is a rather depressing story but a literary masterpiece with realistic observations about life.
I found this a truly compelling read. I was constantly thinking about the character's lives during the day and as I read a bit more each night my feelings for the characters deepened. I went through the entire gamut of emotions while reading this novel at times I chuckled then minutes later I had a little cry. I really cared what happened to the different characters and each night I would read a few more chapters hoping that things would improve in their lives.
Be warned this is an emotional roller coaster of a book. I will not give away the ending but I will warn you that it is not a 'happily ever after' sort of book. If you enjoy reading books that make you think and that open your eyes to things then this is for you. It is a fantastic observation of what life was like for the ordinary people set in the turmoil of political and social unrest in India in the 1970s. I certainly had my eyes opened by reading this as I had a very scant understanding of what took place in India at this time. I was quite shocked; I learnt a lot and felt very humbled by the resilience of the characters in the story. How could I whinge about being hard up, cold, hungry or the minor things that we struggled with in our lives when people in other parts of the world were going through horrors like this.
Thank you Rohinton Mistry for this amazing book. I can't wait to read "Family Matters" which is on my bookshelf. I read this at least two months ago and I still think of the characters in the story and my heart goes out to them for all they went through. If you enjoy a book that tugs at your heart strings and makes you question life or maybe inspires you to find out more, then I recommend this. This book is delightfully rich in its descriptions, it is exquisitely detailed and often depressing and harrowing but all in all it is a reading experience worth having. To me this is the mark of a good book if it stays with you after you have finished reading it. I thoroughly recommend this book. It is not a difficult read but it challenges you through its story. It is a very moving and well told story a modern classic in my view.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.