A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry

Wow.  That is all. Wow.  As in what seems to be every book written by an Indian writer and set in India, the country itself takes center stage as the main character, like an arrogant extra in a movie who keeps moving in front of the camera, blocking out the stars and those characters with speaking parts.  The corruption, the cruelty, the violence, the stupidity, the greed that is life in India (or does that sound like the USA?), is the supposed backdrop to the story of four people who come together by chance, and who themselves become the screen on which the story of India is set on display.

Dina is 30, widowed after only two years of marriage in her young twenties, and clinging precariously to a shabby three room apartment in an unnamed city by the sea, bedeviled by the landlord’s minion for the rent, which she is finding harder and harder to pay.  She decides to take in a paying guest, and her friend arranges for the university-age son of her school-days schoolmate who now lives in a far hill station, a rural area up in the mountains.  That will certainly ease the monetary situation.

But not quite enough. Her eyes are failing from the years of sewing she has done for a living, and she comes across an opportunity to sew for a wholesaler.  She gets the idea to hire a couple of tailors to do the sewing in her home.  In order to accommodate the sewing business and the paying guest, she moves her own things out of the bedroom into one of the other rooms for the guest.  There is a problem, because she is not permitted to either operate a business or have a paying guest in her home, and could easily lose her apartment.

Ishvar and Om, uncle and nephew, have come to the city from their remote and tiny village to find work and earn enough money to set themselves up in business in their village. They are from a very low caste, originally tanners and leather workers, whose brother/father sent them to learn tailoring with a Muslim friend in another city to escape the cruelty and violence against their caste in their own village.

Our final protagonist, Maneck, is 17 and going to school for refrigeration and air conditioning.

Each has a backstory, worthy of its own book, and taken together, form a powerful and compelling story that is hard reading.  Don’t look for a happy ending, because there is none, in a book whose main theme is the impossibility of escaping one’s fate.  There are sweet moments along the way, and some arcs that seem to point toward a sunny tomorrow, but as our hopes are constantly dashed for this sunny tomorrow, we Readers must keep reminding ourselves that this is FICTION, that these are not REAL PEOPLE, so get over it.

Profound and unsettling, this is a book that makes you put it down and say, enough.  And then pick it up again because you just have to keep reading.  Until the bitter end.

A Fine Balance was a Man Booker Prize Nominee (1996), Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize (1996), Scotiabank Giller Prize (1995), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (1996), Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall (1996)CBC Canada Reads Nominee (2002), International DUBLIN Literary Award Nominee for Shortlist (1997).

 

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