A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

April 27, 2010 § 16 Comments

Justice is sold to the highest bidder.

A Fine Balance is one of those rare books that set out to tell a story, and end up doing just that, and much much more. This is one of those books that take you on a journey, that leave you changed; it’s one of those books that you wished you were more emotionally prepared for, but you just know you can never really be prepared for what Mistry had to tell.

It would be so easy to say that A Fine Balance is a book about four different individuals whose lives cross each other’s during the crucial years after India’s independence, during those turmoil-filled years of Emergency. But as the book teaches you, nothing comes easy. So there really is no easy way to write about what a book like this is about; it is about everything, and almost nothing at the same time.

This is a story, not only about life, or hope and despair. It’s about how one thing leads to another, about the fine line that could mean nothing and everything. The stories he told about caste; about that imaginary boundary that people drew between themselves, creating for themselves a road that led to nowhere; suddenly these things didn’t feel like distant problems of unknown people anymore. They felt familiar, like some foggy piece of memory left undusted in the corner.

By the time he entered his teens, he had acquired all the knowledge he would need to perceive that invisible line of caste he could never cross, to survive in the village like his ancestors, with humiliation and forbearance as his constant companions.

This is a story about how we are constantly being pulled in one direction, then the other. It’s about how we keep on contradicting ourselves in our thoughts, our emotions, our actions. It’s about how we wish for one thing, yet we do everything in our power to deprive ourselves of the exact same thing which we desire.

When Maneck heard the gossip, he burned with shame, wishing his father would stop this embarrassing behaviour. He also boiled with anger, wishing to slap some sense into the ignorant, insensitive people.

This is a story about life’s lessons learned and ignored. Mistakes recycled over and over, spirits crushed, luck running out. Do we ever really grow wiser? Do we really absorb what little lessons life dishes out to us, through disasters and accidents? And even when we do pick up these lessons along the way, do we really apply them?

Later I discovered there were different types of roads. And a different way of walking on each.

Mistry has a way of just telling the story as it is. He doesn’t dwell on events or long descriptions; instead it almost feels like he likes to keep his distance from his own characters. He’s telling it like he has nothing to do with them, like he has no feelings; but the power behind his words lie in how they could make me take pause. He had a way of making me stay on a single paragraph, read it over and over again, discovering the many layers of meanings that could be hidden beneath the simple veneer.

He watched powerlessly while, for the second time, lines on paper ruined the life of the Kohlah family.

I thought I was prepared. I had skimmed through Mee’s review of this book just as I touched the first quarter of the book, and I knew I was going to be in for an emotional ride. I knew going in that there would be no happy endings. And still I faltered. Still it grabbed me unawares, leaving me misty-eyed, completely unbelieving what I was reading. I was surprised at how much I felt for the characters, how much their lives meant to me. Their little moments of joy became mine; their loss of trinkets from the past became my sorrows.

This book is aptly titled; it truly is about a fine balance in this world. Though it might feel somewhat like a bleak, depressing story, for some reason I feel that it offers more than that. It is not uplifting, but it doesn’t throw you into the darkness of hopelessness.

There is always hope – hope enough to balance our despair.

Rating: 5

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§ 16 Responses to A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

  • A Fine Balance is my favourite book, so I’m really pleased to see that you enjoyed it. I love the way you’ve pointed out the importance of the title and said “it is about everything, and almost nothing at the same time.” Great review! I hope you persuade a few more people to try this wonderful book.

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks Jackie. I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially from such a well-known book (I tend to be a little cautious with books like this..), so knowing that you and Mee both loved it came as some sort of reassurance.

  • Iris says:

    Your review made me feel that I need to read this book sometime, but the fact that you mentioned the need to be emotionally prepared and yet not being able to be fully prepared scares me a little as well. You did a great job reviewing it though!

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks Iris. It does pack a punch, I think, in the emotional side of things. But then again, that’s just me. If you have the time, check out Mee’s review (I linked in the post). She thinks everything was told rather straightforwardly, so nothing too explosive in the emotion department. We both loved it though, so I do hope you give it a go.

  • Nymeth says:

    Between you and Mee, I’m dying to get my hands on this book. You both wrote such fabulous reviews!

  • Aimee says:

    I really need to read this book. Agreed, you and Mee have been the factors of force.

  • mee says:

    The funny thing is that we didn’t even plan to read it together lol.

    I love your review, especially the ending, which sums up everything in the book, every little events, and the book as a whole. Yes at the end there’s hope, just enough to balance the despair, just enough to make you live another day.

    • Michelle says:

      Funny, isn’t it? We seem to have quite a few coincidences.

      You’re right about how hope is enough to make you live another day. It sort of makes you think, there’s hope still, all this is still worth it, somehow. That’s how the book felt for me.

  • gaskella says:

    I really really must read this.

  • Sasha says:

    I’ve been seeing this book in the secondhand bookstore next to the office, and I’ve never been interested. But your review definitely has me praying that the book’s still there. I’ll go and get it [unearth it] at the soonest! 🙂 Thank you!

    • Michelle says:

      I think I know why you weren’t very interested. I wasn’t all that taken in by it at first, but for some reason, I just picked it up from the library one day, deciding to give it a chance to show me what’s made it so well-known.

      I hope the book’s still there for you to unearth.

  • kiss a cloud says:

    Wow another five! First from Di then you. I am waiting for the new Faber and Faber edition to come out because I love their covers, and then I’ll read this!

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