It has taken me a while to come around to writing this review. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance has left me at a complete loss of words to put my thoughts into. But it also wouldn’t be right to not say anything about this remarkable novel and its all too real portrayal of the human psyche and the ways in which it justifies its most atrocious tendencies – it is a masterpiece in every way imaginable.
A Fine Balance opens simply: uncle and nephew duo Ishvar and Omprakash Darji are headed to an unnamed but busy city for jobs; specifically, jobs from a Dina Dalal who is looking to hire skilled tailors. On the train, they meet Maneck Kohlah, who, unbeknownst to Ishvar and Om, is also on his way to Dina Dalal’s flat; his mother and Dina were old school friends and they have arranged for Maneck to rent a room in Dina’s flat so he doesn’t have to live in the rowdy student hostel. Over the course of the next year or so, the lives of these unlikely characters become inextricably and they change each other’s fate in the most gut-wrenching yet poetic way.
Set against the backdrop of the State of Emergency declared in India in 1975 under prime minister Indira Gandhi, A Fine Balance explores how the political environment of the country and the rampant violence and corruption during those 21 months affected the different socioeconomic classes of India at the time — depicted through Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om who come from strikingly different backgrounds and whose outlook of society varies by the injustices meted out to them. Mistry’s novel provides a very vivid glimpse of a highly controversial time in independent India’s history and as a passionate fan of historical fiction, reading this book has been as educational as it has been emotional.
A Fine Balance shines the brightest when, in describing the minutia of the lives of our four protagonists, it brings out the nuances of their characters and lays bare the methods in which humans go about strengthening their relationships with each other: with humour, food, trust and storytelling. Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om all have fascinatingly different stories to tell, of their past, of their trauma and of their standing in society and yet this is what brings them closer and closer together as the novel goes on. Mistry also focalises his narrative exceptionally well, outlining every character’s association with the society they inhabit and their understanding of its shortcomings with great subtlety.
Through these four characters, Mistry also explores the transience of life, gratitude for all it has to offer and regret for moments gone. The juxtaposition of their exhilaration and their despair that stems from deep-seated trauma gives further dimension to their characters, and makes their triumphs and losses feel almost personal. It is not an exaggeration when I say that the character development of this novel is one of the best I’ve come across; I know I will come back to Dina and her rag-tag gang and their unusual bond over and over again just to focus on the individual characters and their growth (or the lack of it) through 800 pages.
In a A Little Life-esque fashion, Mistry doesn’t shy away from elaborating on the grotesque details of the misogyny and casteism the characters face and the consequent impact of such unfathomable cruelty on their mental wellbeing. Admittedly, I found this to be rather emotionally exhausting and it took me several months to get through the middle sections of the novel — the book spent long stretches of time gathering dust on my nightstand before I could find the courage to continue reading. Don’t let this deter you from exploring Mistry’s heartbreaking Booker Prize shortlist though; its emotional depth is what grants it masterpiece status.
While I am not a fan of Mistry’s prose — verbose and difficult to pay attention to for long periods of time — The Independent lists A Fine Balance as one of the 12 best Indian novels that everyone needs to read, calling it ‘beautifully written’. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the way Mistry writes brings out the simplicity of his characters and the lives they lead better, or if his staccato style of writing takes impact away from the novel. In any case, Mistry has created a piece of work that will be a reflection of humans and our crooked society for many generations to come and for that he is a genius.
Life truly is a delicate balance of difficult emotions, experiences and relationships, and Mistry comes spectacularly close (and how!) to answering what it means to be human, wading through this journey, sometimes with purpose and sometimes without.
TW: This book mentions and describes abuse, depression, PTSD and suicide. Please read at your own discretion.