A Fine Balance is the third novel I have read this year that is set in India. 3 random works of fiction that have had provided different degrees of enjoyment. The first was very good and one of my best reads this year, the second was average at best and now the third and final one has been an outstandingly brilliant read, so good that I wonder if I will read anything better this year. In all, India has been a good setting for my 2021 fictional reads. To believe that I have had A Fine Balance sitting on the shelf for almost 3 years!
A Fine Balance is a breathtakingly heartbreaking story written by Rohinton Mistry. Its heartbreaking nature is equally matched by the beautiful prose and masterful storytelling. I generally flinch at books that go beyond 350 to 400 pages ( A Fine Balance is a little over 600 pages) as my attention was never that great in my younger days and has gotten worse in recent years. A book that comes in at over 600 pages is a breeze when Rohinton Mistry is the storyteller. A Fine Balance is set in India in the 70s. Most of the story unfolds in 1975 when the famous Emergency rule is in full swing and Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. This was a period of lawlessness and great uncertainty. The dictatorial tendencies of the Emergency rule were used to suppress rights on religious, social and financial divides. A Fine Balance is not a political novel, even with the devastating effects of the dictatorial government policies taking centre stage in the plot, the overarching themes are larger than politics. It is the moving story of four lives that intersect by chance and how their lives are bound together not just by chance but also by how macro-political decisions impact individuals in profound long-lasting ways and later their lives forever. With all the suffering in A Fine Balance, one is tempted to see it as a study in theodicy when looked from a philosophical lens but that would be a one-dimensional view of a masterfully told story of human living that employs a panoramic view of ordinary lives that is so relatable that their short-lived happiness gladdens the reader immeasurably and their despair seem so prolonged that you seem to want to hurry up the pages in a bid to quicken their suffering. Such is the bleakness of the circumstances of the characters yet it is so well written that the reader is drawn in and kept glued.
The balance in A Fine Balance is not just between hope and despair but across religion, social class, financial status and gender. The search for balance plays out randomly and indiscriminately for Dina, a Parsi widow, Ishvar and Omprakash, two migrant tailors from the rural areas, along with Manesh a student who has been sent by his parents to study in the city. In coming together to form an unusual family bond in Dina’s tiny flat, each of the four is trying to change their circumstance in the face of the repressive Emergency rule – Dina is seeking independence from her patriarchal elder brother, Manesh is distraught at the changes in his family dynamics and refuses to let go of his childhood, while Ishvar and Omprakash are refusing to accept their lot as ”untouchables” as members of the tanners’ caste. As each of them seeks to change their lot, compromises are made, and despair and joy intermingle with the latter in short supply and the former in excess supply. The randomness of hope’s extinguishment is heartbreaking. Therein lies the balance or imbalance at the heart of the story.
A Fine Balance is an exceptionally well-written book that explores ordinary human lives beautifully even when conveying the trauma of being at the receiving end of oppression. The structure is also worthy of commendation – it starts from the point where the lives of all four main characters converge then backs off to their past before returning to their present and proceeding into the future. The present is both collective and individual and the narrative, which is in the second person alternates flawlessly. I still have a few more novels left in my 2021 TBR list but I am almost certain that in A Fine Balance, I have read my best book of 2021. Now I need to find a way to manipulate the settled process of selection in order to get the other Mistry’s novel on the shelf into next year’s pile.