A Fine Balance by Rohinton Minstry
Sometimes with books it is all about the timing and this my friends, is the book you read when you are renovating a house. Not to make light of this masterful novel that details the horrific realities of life in India in the 1970’s, but I did wonder if the expression “first world problem” was coined by someone who had just put it down. In other circumstances I’m sure I would have complained a lot more loudly about the dust, intermittent hot water and campfire kitchen but this book well and truly shut me up.
On the face of it, A Fine Balance tells the story of four people who come together in a small apartment for 12 months in the middle of a national crisis. They come from all parts of Indian society and make an unlikely group. Each at different stages of their lives, they figure out the only they can survive the poverty, horror and turmoil of the time is to stick together. In doing so, they ultimately demonstrate the fine balance between hope and despair.
To me however, it is the story of Narayan; the father of one of these four. Narayan is one of the first characters introduced in the book who was born into a lower caste in a remote village just as the political landscape in India was starting to change. Technically an untouchable, his destiny was set the day he was born but after years of abuse and suffering, he took the risk to advance his family’s position by moving out of his village to train as a tailor. That decision set in train a set of tragic obstacles for he and his family and ultimately proved the depth of the wretched caste system.
Although the writer warned early on that the tale would not end well, I still spent each page with my stomach in knots at the poverty, misfortune and inequity the characters face. I’m talking about the government rounding citizens onto trucks for forced sterilisations, food rations, beggars killing each other over pieces of plastic and spots on the pavement and daily trades in body parts and hair. All under the cruel eye of corrupt government officials.
In terms of style, Mistry is as economical with his language as his characters are with their potatoes. Despite its length (weighing in at 615 pages), you won’t find any protracted sentences or complicated syntax as the events he describes speak for themselves. It is poetic in its simplicity.
This is an important book and I almost want to create a new category at Readhead for books like it. Aside from being a great read, it also offers insights into the complexities of Indian society in terms of religion, prejudice, politics and traditions that everyone should know about. As it is, it’s going into the category of “oldie but goodie” but I don’t want you to think it is OK not to read it, especially if you are planning to renovate.
And that is just my 2 cents worth.