After trudging through the rambling mess of Shantaram, I opted for something a little more literary; Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, a historical novel set during the 1970s Emergency in an unnamed Indian city. It was another brick, at 642 pages, but one that gripped my attention so much that I had it finished in two days.
The novel is driven by the relationship between the four central characters: Dina Dalal, a middle-aged Parsi widow desperate to preserve her independence from her overbearing brother; Ishvar and Omprakash Dalji, two itinerant tailors escaping poverty and caste violence in the countryside; and Maneck Kohlah, a young student of refrigeration and air conditioning from the mountains, find themselves awkwardly cast adrift together in the shabby surroundings of Dina’s rented flat.
The first third of the book delves into the characters’ backstories, fleshing out the grand canvas of the Indian national narrative, and in the second, the threads of the quilt are pulled together; in the midst of the state-sponsored violence and intimidation of The Emergency, the characters slowly manage to craft for themselves a fragile family in the confines of Dina’s flat.
The ‘fine balance’ is question is arguably that between hope and despair, and about two-thirds of the way through, it feels as if the balance has been reached: whilst Ishvar and Om, in particular, have suffered a litany of indignities and persecutions, the flat itself has become a refuge from the ‘goonda Raj’ of the state, as the characters’ essential human dignity and kindness assert themselves. The ending of the novel, however, is unremittingly bleak, and arguably the ‘balance’ that Mistry strove for is here lost. After becoming engrossed in the lives of the four protagonists, the reader is left feeling that they deserved better. However unrealistic a ‘happy ending’ may have been in this context, I found the ending unsatisfying in that one character’s action rang false – to me, that character as earlier written would have made a different, more life-affirming choice.
The writing, although sparer than Roy’s or Rushdie’s, is laced with symbolism, but where Mistry excels is in his carefully realised characters, from the defiantly independent Dina, whose initial determination to preserve the social boundaries between herself and her employees is gradually eroded, to the kind and pragmatic Ishvar, who restrains his impulsive nephew Om’s attempts to kick against the injustices they face. Secondary characters, such as the generous Ashraf Chacha, the perenially optimistic beggar Shankar and his surprisingly benevolent Beggarmaster, are also compelling, bringing to life the grand canvas of the streets.
Definitely read A Fine Balance, but be prepared that you might feel a little let down by the ending.