A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Fine BalanceReading four novels, each set in a major Indian city, one after another over a single week or so, has made the stories feel as if they might overlap, dovetail, conflate, creating quite the enriching literary experience. In the midst of A Fine Balance, I also read (oh so blessedly because it was assigned for review) Jhumpa Lahiri’s upcoming The Lowland, then continued with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl (interview upcoming) on the page, and Jeet Thayil’s Narcoplis (finally!) stuck in the ears. Both Lowland and Oleander happen mostly in Calcutta; Balance is centered on an unnamed city not unlike Bombay, which is where Narcoplis is setRead together, the four titles formed a quatrain that intently examines the last half-century of Indian political, socioeconomic, and even literary history.

But I’ve digressed (again …). Back to Mistry’s “City by the Sea,” where four lonely souls create an unlikely family-of-sorts when circumstances eventually gather them under a single shared roof, in spite of the political, social, and religious boundaries working relentlessly to keep them separately isolated. India in the 1970s is in the midst of violent upheaval, in a state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Dina Dalal, whose apartment will finally become a home, has been a widow exponentially longer than she was a wife. With her eyesight failing and her options diminishing as she enters middle age, she welcomes a college student, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a childhood schoolfriend, as a paying guest. He arrives on Dina’s doorstep at the same time as Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle-and-nephew tailors who have come in answer to her employment request.

Dina and Maneck are Parsi, of ‘good’ families with long histories, whose lives are forced to change rapidly as their country metamorphosizes around them. Since her father’s sudden death when she was a young child, Dina has tried to escape her conservative older brother’s demanding control. Maneck, a beloved only child, mistakes his parents’ desire to ensure him a future of multiple choices (in spite of his father’s ironic unwillingness to change even to save the family’s business) for rejection and abandonment. Ishvar and Omprakash, both born of the Untouchable caste, are the only survivors in their Hindu family of a heinous religiously-fueled purging, and attempt to find new lives in the big city.

The ‘fine balance’ of these four lives – with a vivid cast of many others around them – are revealed over 600 intimate pages (or 24.5 hours stuck in the ears as read by John Lee who, as Orhan Pamuk’s usual narrator, takes a couple of hours to get used to here, I must admit). That said, please do not let those numbers deter or distract you in any way … once begun, you’ll quickly realize that you’ll want nothing more than to go through such committed lengths in order to finally (bittersweetly) finish.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

8 responses to “A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

  1. krissnp

    He writes well. But the story progresses slowly. Many lose patience. May be so with Jhumpa too.

    • I’m currently reading an 880 page book that was assigned to me for review (so finish I must!), with a story so slow as to make me wish I could tear whole sections out. That story is ‘slow’ to the point of tedium.

      Fine Balance, on the other hand, might have a simplistic overall narrative — you could generally reduce the 600+ pages of the story down to a sentence or two — but for me, the intricate details of what happens sometimes minute-by-minute, sometimes over many years is so carefully woven as to never lose my attention and wish to move beyond what Mistry is describing with those very words at the very second I was reading them. And when I had reached the final page, I found myself missing the characters very much, wishing I might know what their lives in the decades that surely followed. I think perhaps one of Dina’s nephews might have become a character in Narcopolis. Or that Maneck might have become someone like ‘Papa’ in Lowland. So I continue their stories through others’ novels …

      And have you read any Lahiri? Her short stories are whole worlds contained in just a few pages. That said, I found her first novel, Namesake, disappointing after being so spoiled by her stories. Her upcoming latest novel, Lowland, however is a stunner. Not to be missed.

      • krissnp

        True. I have read the novel of Jhumpa a little. Mistry too the same. Are you sure about what you said at the end of your post? On what basis?

        • Perhaps because I read more than a little … I read all the way (oh so gratefully) to the end of all the books mentioned in the post.

          And given @MingLeer’s reactions as he has recently commented here, as well as the joyful awe that other readers so freely — umprompted-ly — shared with him, I would say I am not alone in my admiration and gratitude of reading such a splendid book.

          Opinions are wholly personal, too. And this post here is wholly my own.

  2. Onat Siahaan

    @krissnp its true that the story progressess slowly but i still like it, they way he respresented the story itself.

    • The current novel I’m reading now is just tedious slow (see reply to @krissnp above). If Balance was slow, I found it to be a luxuriating slow to be gratefully relished.

  3. Ming Leer

    I thoroughly enjoyed Fine Balance and reading your review is sending me to a place of awe by recalling the novel . I remember being thoroughly immersed–time stood still while the words flew. And I still wonder how the stories were crafted to be gripping and bittersweet and yet sarcastic and hopeful. So many different reactions at the same time! Beautifully done.

    As an aside, I had strangers approach me while I read the book at the diner, at the playground, and on the subway. They too had enjoyed the book and felt moved to express it. Whoa–books really can have us readers connect.

    • What a clever posting name!! I’m going to remember that one for a long time!!!

      And thanks, too, for sharing your awe. The power of books to bring complete strangers together is truly something remarkable, even miraculous to experience and savor indeed!

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