Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance"

A deeply humane and beautifully written novel about India in 1975. Through the lives of four people, brought together in one household by chance, Mistry captures the ancient and modern cruelties of India and the power of ordinary Indians to endure. Living in an unnamed city by the sea, Dina, a young widow, has to struggle ceaselessly to maintain her own independence. Maneck is a college student who cannot forgive his parents for sending him away from their idyllic hill station. Ishvar and Om, uncle and nephew, are tailors fleeing from caste violence in their native village.

They will move from distrust to friendship to love, only when they tell one another their stories, the same way by which the reader gets to understand them. Mistry is, however, sensitive to the limits of storytelling. Sometimes, friendship is just not enough, and the novel, having brought them together, inexorably separates them as they confront growing up, marriage, political corruption, religious violence, the Emergency. The fine balance between hope and despair can only be maintained for a while.

Sewn into the main stories are tales of other colorful characters. Like Rajaram who collects hair for a living. And Shankar, the armless and legless beggar who rolls himself about on his wooden platform on castors, and works for the Beggarmaster. And Avinash, the student leader who dares to agitate for justice and is punished horribly. If they seem larger-than-life, they are also true to life, Mistry's writing assures the reader. In fact, he warns the reader right from the beginning by quoting Balzac in the book's epigraph:

"Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true."

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