Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

This is the most emotionally draining book I’ve ever read. It’s bleak, horrible and full of doom and gloom. And yet the book was so wonderfully written that I have no doubt the characters will stay with me forever.

The book is set in the period of India I have never known, the Emergency in 1975. After reading the book, I came to know the horrors experienced by the people during Emergency. Some scenes described in the novel were so appalling that I wanted to believe the author was exaggerating the circumstances. But who knows? I wasn’t born to witness the horror, and thank god for that. India hasn’t changed much from that period, though. The same story would have been valid even now, but the historical backdrop added interest to the tale. The blatant corruption, the poverty, the caste system, the atrocities on women, and the reservations still exist, making me hate my own country if I think too deeply about it. No wonder a lot of people are seeking their fortunes elsewhere.

Well, coming to the plot, it’s mainly about four characters: Om and his uncle Ishvar, who come to Bombay from a village in search of jobs; Dina Dalal, a widow; and Maneck, who comes from a place of mountains to do a diploma course in air conditioning. Dina, in a desperate attempt to retain her independence from her bother, hires Om and Ishvar to do tailoring for a company. She brings work from the company and pays them commission for doing the work. Maneck, disgusted at the ragging and politics in his university, leaves his hostel to stay as a paying guest in Dina’s house. During the first half of the book, we come to know the backgrounds of all the four protagonists. The later part of the book mainly describes how the Emergency affects their lives and tears them apart when, at last, they learn finding happiness in the city living together as a family.

I won’t dwell further on the plot in case I reveal the story and the ending. The page turning point of the book is the attention to detail. The author describes every small detail of the era that we feel like we are watching a movie in a theatre. In the first part of the story, the author describes the agony lower castes used to face in the caste system. Later on he describes the lives of people living in slums, beggars, people who work in irrigation projects, tailors, and several other unlucky people who were born poor in this country. It set my heart racing and my stomach churning reading about the difficulties they face everyday. This is that kind of book that makes your difficulties look trivial when compared to the difficulties faced by millions of Indians below poverty line. It’s the mostly the magic of his writing that makes the characters come alive. Not only Om and Ishvar but also other small characters like the Beggarmaster, the Monkey Man, Zenobia, Ruby, Nuzzwan. Now-a-days vivid descriptions almost became old style; the plot is mainly based on dialogue. His poetic writing style is a welcome change. There was no humour in the story. Even if was there, it was dark humour, which makes you cry more than laugh.

I have complaints, though: there were too many coincidences in the story. The plot looked contrived as though the author was too pessimistic to let anything good happen in the lives of his characters. Whenever there seemed to be a danger of something good happening in their lives, tragedy, worse than what had already happened, would wreck their lives. There was not one, not a single character, whose life ended on a happy note in the story. Why on earth would somebody write a book like this, which is full of pessimism and despair? I don’t want to sound bitter, but it looked as though he were writing for the foreign audience, who can only appreciate the picture of India as a hopeless and underdeveloped country. No, I am not a fan of the movie Slumdog Millionaire (I always felt that Lagaan was a far better movie) and am not a fan of this book either. And because of books like this, foreigners are treating slums like Dharavi as tourist places. It saddened me that in many reviews foreigners are actually treating this book as some guide to learn about India. I accept the fact that India is poor, there are people living in slums, and may be many of the incidents written in this book actually happened. But, I still maintain that he could have counterbalanced it with some happy picture of the country, at least to do justice to the title. But no, there’s no fine balance. It’s a sad, sad book. The only positive message he seemed to give was, we need to plod on in our lives, no matter how many horrors we face. I can give it only 4/5 even though it is a wonderful book.

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