On balance I found this a great book
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
Member Name: catsholiday
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
Date: 22/09/10, updated on 27/10/11 (71 review reads)
Advantages: Beautifully written, very emotional, great characters
Disadvantages: Some may find it too depressing
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.
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Summary: Fantastic book set in India during the 1970s