A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Published: 1995 by McClelland & Stewart
After pulling A Fine Balance off of my bookshelf to re-read it for the first time in many years, I am thrilled to say that it still was a wonderful read for me and that it remains one of my all time favorite books.
The novel is set in India, primarily in the 1970s, but with flashbacks to earlier times and an epilogue that jumps to 1984. There are four main characters: Ishvar and Omprakash (Om), uncle and nephew whose family has been victimized by the caste system and and who head to Bombay to find work as tailors and to earn money so that Om can be married; Dina, a widow who is trying to keep her independence; and Maneck, a student who is torn between fleeing the family business and staying in the comfort zone it provides.
The lives of all four characters become intertwined as Ishvar and Om begin working for Dina in her flat and Maneck becomes a boarder there. Throughout the novel the four are at once friends and enemies, confidants and keepers of secrets; but they are each other’s family, for better or worse.
In this re-reading I noticed the line from which the title was derived: “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair … In the end, it’s all a question of balance.” That is the novel in a nutshell; from beginning to end there is both hope and despair for everyone; both individually and as a group. At times they even exist together.
This novel just blows me away with its vivid sensory descriptions of the real India of the era; I’ve mentioned it before but Rohinton Mistry makes me see, hear, smell and taste the country just through his words. And it’s not always pretty; in fact it rarely is, yet I still could not take myself away from reading about a place and about characters so different from my own experience.
It’s a huge book (my hardcover copy is 748 pages, and the paperback edition comes in at 624) but when you read this book you will be rewarded with an experience you won’t soon forget.
Highly highly recommended.
By the way, I like to claim that I gave Oprah the suggestion to make this book one of her book club selections! When I first moved to the US and didn’t yet have work authorization, I had time to watch Oprah’s show, and participate in her book club. After reading one of her selections (Tara Road by Maeve Binchy) I sent an e-mail to “Oprah” (well, Oprah’s people) saying how much I liked the book, and, since I didn’t know how they selected their books, I recommended A Fine Balance and another Canadian novel which I loved, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald. The e-mail got me an invite to the discussion episode for Tara Road, but I was more excited when about two years later what should her selections be but: A Fine Balance and Fall on Your Knees! Coincidence? Probably …. but I like to think I had a hand in it.