Book Review : ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

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It was one laid-back day that I came across this impressive book. If I do confess it was in our bathroom shelf (yes we have a shelf in our bathroom with a stack of books and magazines that some strange family members like reading; one including myself) that I found this book perched next to another. I picked it up wondering never to have seen it before, and I began reading without any expectation whatsoever. Little did I know it would become my bathroom friend for the next few days. Just to comfort myself, I would like to be reassured as to whether any others like to read in the bathroom, otherwise I have revealed my strange side a bit too much! By the end of it, this book had really struck a chord in my heart and as it always happens, I was left reeling over the aftermath of what had happened,  the book having evoked a tumult of emotions.

I wanted to think over what I wished to express, in the best way. I went online to read some other reviews and analyse what other people had to say about it. For the most part, people were immensely shaken by the tragedy of the book. Some overjoyed over the pleasantness of the four characters coming together, in the wake of political turmoil. Some could not believe that so much cruelty and suffering was possible, deeming it melodramatic and unnatural. I do not think it was melodramatic. In fact having an Asian background myself, I just about knew how real it could get.

The story begins by introducing all four characters sequentially. These characters are from entirely different backgrounds. There are Ishvar and Om, two people of the lowly ‘Chamaar’ caste and considered untouchable, but want to breach away from this ordained and self restrictive caste system. They live in the filth ridden shantytowns, built on make shift tents that can easily be removed, such that later in the novel one finds the  Government carelessly raiding the slums and taking away the only home these people have. Dina, of a wealthy and respectable Parsi family is faced with the hard hitting brother of hers after the death of her parents, who expects her to be somewhat of a live in maid, for which later she rebels and marries of her own choice, much to the sadness of losing her husband after only 3 years. Lastly there is Maneck, born in the mountainous regions of India. He is alienated from the love of his parents which he has wanted all his life, who have made all his life decisions, making him extremely melancholy. Thus begins a bittersweet story of these four characters who are circumstantially brought together, in a 1970s Gandhi India where political shadiness caused much anguish and disappointment for the people. Mistry focuses on the lives of these four people and their unity, which is most interesting and engaging.

We find happiness, and even moments of comedy and comic relief, through misfortune, dejection and tragedy during their nostalgic time together. But the tone is already set, living in an unstable India, where Dina as a woman finds much difficulty without the security of her husband and Maneck reveals underlying rebellion due to abiding by a  strict academic system that does not allow him to show freedom of choice or expression. In the most part, the atrocities that Ishvar and Om face are inexplicable. They are exploited beyond belief, used as modern day slaves, without a say, shafted from one end to another, losing their homes and livelihood, being pawns of a corrupt, higher authority.  And yet, do we say it makes it easier for them because they are born unguarded, and meant to resign to this fatalistic life of struggle. Where is the ethical boundary at all? I would not call it a struggle, but rather, the horror of the barbarity involved in using these people, knowing they are powerless.

However I still found myself joining in the joy of the uplifting and humble nature in which the four characters live and show friendship and togetherness alongside political power, corruption and a shriveled sense of morality brewing in society and state. It is all the clutching on to happiness one can do when disaster is looming. There are bumps all the way in the story which indicate a rough ride. But in the end, it is a heart-wrenching tragedy. The characters are only found happiest during their time together. The grim result of all the characters is an overwhelming tear jerker. Ultimately it is a story of shattered dreams and desires, of poverty, of the state’s rather animalistic laws, of being able to survive, of loneliness and of depression. This was one book I desperately wanted to end happy. It is fantastically written, and the emotion and realism opens your eyes.