One of the most important things I have learnt from putting pen to paper and reflecting on what I read is how completely skewed first impressions can be. I did think twice about putting A Fine Balance in my rucksack to take away with me because even opening this book up is a prospect that, until a few weeks ago, had made me quite anxious indeed. Densely-packed text covers all 624 pages of this epic novel that deals with some pretty harsh and harrowing subjects…….but was this a slog to read in the end?
Not one bit.
Despite having been thoroughly occupied with Discovering Daphne du Maurier these past few days, this deeply moving portrait of four people struggling to survive in the Indian mega-city Mumbai is something that has haunted me for days….
Dina Dilal is a headstrong individual with a fierce desperation to maintain her independence; an incredible goal in a world of crippling poverty and political turmoil, particularly for a woman. Having found a modest flat of her very own away from the prying eyes of her controlling brother and his wife, Dina sets out to employ two experienced tailors (Ishvar and Omprakesh) to take on the work doled out by a large export company in the city and rents out her only bedroom to the student son of a school friend.
The way in which Rohinton Mistry effortlessly interweaves the stories of four characters with completely different experiences of the same country is really very admirable. Through a masterful series of chapters that leap in time and space we follow Ishvar and Omprakesh’s journey, and that of their family, from the small village of the chamaar caste of ‘untouchables’ they belong to to the bright lights and brand new lives working as tailors in the city. Great joy and great tragedy lies in store for these two men and we follow them closely every step of the way. Student Maneck, on the other hand, comes from a very different part of the world; growing up in a quiet hill station in his parent’s grocery shop and finding himself understandably shell-shocked by the city.
The vivid images in this novel were of course made all the more so by being in situ at the time of reading and I find myself wondering what I would have imagined in my minds eye had we not witnessed the terrible poverty and overwhelming chaos with our own eyes. I am also rather ashamed that I understood so little about India’s turbulent history before going there and this brilliant story merely served to hammer this home, exploring the religious conflicts surrounding partition-era India and the surgical removal (quite literally at times!) of citizens’ basic human rights during Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ of the 1970s.
This is a heartwarming and enlightening tale that deals with some uncomfortable and distressing subjects in a very appropriate and entirely natural way. The serious tragedy we might see that is a simple reality for many people in India is brutally and honestly approached without eclipsing the bond these wonderful characters develop and the positive periods spent with one another. Rohinton Mistry is an accomplished writer and this beautiful novel is well on its way to being a modern classic; had its 600 pages fit into my satchel without becoming horrendously squashed and dog-eared it would have been perfect. A Fine Balance, you might say… 9/10