When Oprah choose the book A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (624 pgs, Knopf) as one of her Book Club selections a few years back, I added it to my TBR list. Now you may ask why I didn't read it until now. I learned early on that many of the Oprah Book Club books tended to run on the depressing side. And let me just tell you this: A Fine Balance is no exception to the rule. I finally picked it up to read as a choice for the Canadian Reading Challenge: Rohinton Mistry hails from Toronto and this book won the Giller Prize in 1995.
A Fine Balance is the story of 4 people in an Indian city in 1975, during the State of Emergency declared by the Prime Minister. Dina Dalal worked as a seamstress. Although her brother had money, Dina was determined to make a living on her own. When her husband was killed in an accident on the day of their 3rd Anniversary, Dina's life changed forever. She refused to be arranged into another marriage, preferring to sew to make a living for herself. But 20 years later, her eyes began to fail. She needed desperately to find a new way to survive. So she took on work from an export company. But she needed to hire some tailors to actually make the dresses.
Enter Ishvar Darji, and his nephew Omprakash. The two tailors had left their village, hoping to find work in the big city. Ishvar and Om had survived many years of suffering and heartache before reaching the city. Ishvar and his brother had been born into the Chamaar caste. A working class caste of untouchables. But their father had hopes for his boys, and sent them away to learn a new trade - the trade of the tailor. And the boys flourished, which didn't sit well in their village where caste violence was the norm. When Om's father defied the laws of the caste by standing up and wanting his vote to count in an election, the entire family was murdered. Om and Ishvar escaped the brutal killings only because they were out of town at the time. Now, they needed a job as desperately as Dina needed tailor.
Maneck Kohlah was a boy born in a small mountain village. His parents owned the local store and their family prospered until expansion and new ideas came to the village. Maneck's father didn't want things to change, and it was causing this business to slide. Instead of training Maneck to take over and modernize the family business, it was decided he needed to go to college to learn a trade. So he was sent into the city completely against his own wishes and desires. But life at the college hostel was horrible. When his only friend, the leader of the student council disappeared, Maneck needed to find somewhere else to stay. He didn't feel safe. His mother was childhood friends with Dina Dalal. She needed a paying guest and Maneck needed a room.
The first half of the book shifts back and forth between the past and the present. In this way, we get an understanding of the backstory of each of the four main characters. The second half of the book is all in the present, with the four living under one roof, learning about each other and themselves. It took me a long time to get into the story, and I'm not really sure why. Although the book is well over 600 pages, it instantly grabs you.
The horror of the 70's in India is definitely not a story for everyone. The volatility of the situation was really hard for me to comprehend. The staged political rallies, where people were forced to show their support of the Prime Minister. The "Beautification" of the city, that included tearing down all the low-income housing and leaving many homeless, including Ishvar and Om. The forced sterilization of people to cut back on the population surge. The brutal caste system that condemned a person at birth. How the ruling upper class tread on the backs of the poor to push forth their own agendas. These are just a few of the topics touched on by Mistry. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking, sad, depressing story.
I loved Dina, even when she was trying so hard to stay hard-nosed with the tailors. She had such fear that they would take advantage of her. She was strong and independent, but had lived alone for so long she actually feared companionship. She probably changed the most during the story, and it was a wonderful change. I found Maneck to be a bit on the spoiled side, but his biggest strength was his ability to see beyond the boundaries of class. He was the glue that held the four together. Om and Ishvar endured so much, from page one until the end. Theirs was the story that broke my heart.
Can I recommend this book? Absolutely. It's a beautifully written story that needed to be told. But if you are looking for a breath of fresh air or a heartwarming story to make you feel good, this is definitely not it. It's a hard read because you want to see good things happen to these wonderful people. And yet you just know as you turn each page, it's not going to end very well. This story really affected me: It made me angry and sad....and extremely thankful that I have never known such adversity. And that, my friends, is the sign of a good book.
"You see, you cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair".
A quote to live by. 4.5/5