Monday, 9 April 2012

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A brilliant novel, informative and heart rendering. Set in the seventies in a large Indian town which is unknown to the reader, this novel chronicles the story of four individuals from very different sectors of the Indian caste system. Mistry is a spectacular storyteller. He is able to write with great detail of the minutiae of daily life without draining the novel with heavy descriptions, as well as link the narratives of the four characters into the larger picture. 

Each character is described in such a way that you feel as though you have met them in real life. The dialogues that break up the narrative also add to this effect. You cannot help but be drawn to the characters and their plight. In addition to this, the way that the relationships between the characters unfold and develop is natural, with trust being gained slowly through experiences. There is a real warmth to the relationships as the distance that the characters try and preserve due to differences in status or generation become discarded once happiness shines through.

The novel is full of stark contrasts. There are the obvious contrasts between rich and poor, life in the city versus the village and less obvious ones such as differences in attitudes. Even acts of kindness are undercut by inhumanity and cruelty. The contrasts serve as a constant reminder to the reader of the differences in life, especially in India, and how these combine to make a 'fine balance'. Despite it being a rather bleak and depressing novel most of the time, the title serves as a realistic, yet positive reminder of the beauty of life is because of this balance. In Mistry's own words, the 'fine balance' is between hope and despair. The lives of the characters are harsh, full of challenges and injustices. However, there is always perseverance, optimism and even humour. The finale of the novel shows how three of the characters get by and are still smiling. The only character that does not manage to keep up the balance is unable to bear life and its horrors destroy him. 

Mistry writes with such clarity into the political and social state of 1970s India and how deeply embedded the caste system was in society. There is a real sense of injustice shown in the corruption brought about by money and power, which is conveyed in the multiple narratives of turmoil and humiliation, which shock, appall and disgust the reader. Yet, Mistry portrays the beauty of human relationships that endure life through every hurdle. I especially love how he writes with no bias towards any particular religion or caste. Parsis, Muslims and Hindus are all shown to have kindness in their hearts and be able to be swayed by corruption. The same goes for the different castes. Even in the midst of evil and tragedy there is a message of hope because A Fine Balance is pivoted on the unlimited capacity that human beings have to survive and to selflessly care for one another. In his characters, Mistry has recreated the fates of many throughout the world through political unrest, war and other tragedy.

On finishing the novel, the reader may feel a little bit as though they have grown in spirit. Its power makes one appreciate the life a Westerner in modern day is blessed with. The novel is also uplifting in that it highlights how despite all, love, care and kindness prevails all.

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