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A Fine Balance ()

Vintage Books List of the Best Reading Group Books

    What sense did the world make?  Where was God, the Bloody Fool?  Did He have no notion of fair
    and unfair?  Couldn't He read a simple balance sheet?  He would have been sacked long ago if He
    were managing a corporation, the things Hew allowed to happen....
        -A Fine Balance

Suppose that you were reading a novel about the struggle of a group of people on the margins (economic, racial, religious margins) of society in Hitler's Berlin or Stalin's Moscow, a novel written by a refugee; you wouldn't expect a particularly happy ending would you ?  But somehow, even though Rohinton Mistry is a Parsi refugee from India, who moved to Canada in 1975 when Indira Ghandi declared a State of Emergency and assumed sweeping powers, we just aren't prepared for the moment when his narrative of life in Indira's India turns truly dark.  This really says more about our political naiveté when it comes to the Third World than it does about his plotting technique or his writing style.  I suspect that for most readers, and I know it was true of me, there's a sense that oppressive totalitarianism is really only a tragedy when it drags a developed Western nation back down into barbarism--that for underdeveloped nations, such murderous misrule is pretty much the normal state of things.  Perhaps there's even some lingering imperialistic, racist feeling that such backwards peoples are not capable of imposing the kind of all-encompassing, soul-killing, dictatorship that we find so horrifying when they descend on a Western populace, or that these long abused peoples, unused to freedom, can not feel its absence as profoundly as do we.  Rohinton Mistry disabuses us of such notions, quite forcefully.

A Fine Balance is set in an unnamed Indian city--I guess it's supposed to be Bombay--in 1975.  It centers around the unlikely living arrangements of four characters who are forced by their strained economic circumstances to share an apartment.  Dina Dilal is a widower who has spent her life trying to escape her abusive and domineering brother, in a society where independent women are, to say the least, not the norm.  The apartment represents her attempt to maintain her freedom, but she can not afford the rent on her own.  She is first convinced to take in a fellow Parsi as a boarder, Maneck Kohlah, whose parents have sent him to the city from his beloved Himalayan hill country so that he can earn a degree.  Then she hires two tailors to do piece work, Hindus whom she allows to live in the apartment : Ishvar Darji and his seventeen-year-old nephew, Omprakash.  Ishvar is devoted to the task of finding his brother's son a wife.

Despite their disparate backgrounds, the four develop into something like a family, as they lean on each other in the face of financial hardship, personal troubles, and political turmoil.  The lives of a cast of colorful characters--including the local Beggarmaster, a guilt ridden rent collector, a hair collector who takes his work a tad too seriously, and even a litter of nearly feral cats--become intertwined with those of the principles, providing an unusually detailed and richly textured portrait of a community of the urban poor.

But inevitably, or seemingly inevitably, events eventually catch up to the little group and the centripetal force of their affection for one another proves no much for the centrifugal force of a society that offers little or no economic opportunity, no real prospects for single women, discriminates against religious minorities, and is embarked on a genuinely evil campaign of mass sterilizations of unwilling citizens.  All of these forces come to bear on the apartment dwellers in ways that range from the merely sad to the truly horrific.  Considering how touching are some of the earlier scenes of the group bonding, and how hopeful are their dreams, the transition to tragedy is definitely jarring.  But what real alternative does Mistry have ?  Such were, and one fears still are, the realities of life in post-Raj India.

The book is so ineffably sad that it seems only fair to caution readers that they may find it too heartbreaking.  On the other hand, simply to the extent that it brings us face to face with the brutalities of which such supposedly progressive governments as Indira Ghandi's are capable, and depicts just how intolerable life in these societies can be, it serves an invaluable purpose.  It amply demonstrates that native rule is no panacea for the ills of the Third World and helps us to understand why refugees from these countries continue to seek a better life in America, long after their colonial masters have left them, seemingly, in control of their own fates.  In the end, it avails the oppressed naught that their oppressors may share a skin color : it is ideas--such as freedom; and equality under the law; and opportunity--which really matter and which provide the setting in which people, such as those so lovingly portrayed here, can maintain their balance and realize their dreams.


Grade: (A-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BIO & BIBLIO : Rohinton Mistry (The National Library of Canada)
    -ARTICLE :  Oprah picks new book selection (AP, 11/30/2001)
    -ARTICLE : Mistry calls criticism of his book 'asinine' (Canoe)
    -Rohinton Mistry: An Overview (Canadian Culture & Literature)
    -PROFILE : Rohinton Mistry became an author almost by chance (Mary Mazzocco, Knight-Ridder Newspapers)
    -ESSAY : The Toronto Circle :  In accomplished stories and novels South Asian writers who are exiles in Canada are re-creating the worlds they left behind  (Jamie James, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Critic's Notebook; Goodbye Minimalists; Hello Tellers of Tales (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times,  May 31, 1989)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : A Fine Balance
    -REVIEW : of A FINE BALANCE By Rohinton Mistry (A. G. Mojtabai, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Hilary Mantel: States of Emergency, NY Review of Books
       A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
    -REVIEW : of A Fine Balance (Rajyasree Sen, Fresh Lime Soda)
    -REVIEW : of SUCH A LONG JOURNEY By Rohinton Mistry (David Ray, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Such a Long Journey - Rohinton Mistry  (Emily Myer / The Brunswickan)
    -REVIEW : of Swimming Lessons and Other Stories From Firozsha Baag By Rohinton Mistry (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Swimming Lessons and Other Stories From Firozsha Baag By Rohinton Mistry (Hope Cooke, NY Times Book Review)
    <-REVIEW: of Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (Dylan Foley, The Denver Post)
    -BOOK LIST : What children know : The editor of the Threepenny Review selects her five favorite novels about childhood.  (Wendy Lesser, Salon)