A fine balance by Rohinton Mistry; a fine book
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
Member Name: justathought
A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
Advantages: Engaging, brilliantly written, worth reading again
Disadvantages: Full of tragic events
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!
Summary: A sad but realistic book that will stay with me and be reread