Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Fine Balance Between Hope and Despair

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


kookie said...

Wasn't that a great one, Stephanie? I read it quite a few months back and had the same reaction that you did more or less. I was oddly fascinated by the guy who stole women's braids to sell. Probably because I frequently wear my hair in one long braid. :D

Stephanie said...

It was a great book, but man. It was depressing. The hair guy just kind of made me mad. I guess he really shows the injustice of the world. Bad guy ends up with all. Good people, not so much.

trish said...

I just mooched this book and received it in the mail yesterday. I'll keep in mind it's on the depressing side, but hopefully I'll get to it this year. :-)

John Mutford said...

If Oprah's known for picking depressing books, I'm surprised she hasn't picked more Canadians than she has. I'm embarassed to say that I don't know if I've read this or not. I thought I had but your synopsis doesn't ring any bells.

Stephanie said...

Trish - It's well worth reading. It's an excellent book. But it is so sad.

John - Too funny. So you Canadians are a depressing lot?? If you haven't read it, you should.

Debi said...

Wow, Stephanie...great review! I can't believe I've never even heard of this book before, but it definitely sounds worth the read. Thanks!

raidergirl3 said...

This is one of my favorite books for just the reason you said: I kept thinking about it afterwards. As I read it, I felt like I was slogging through it, but I kept going back to it.
It just made me think about how your life is so much of how you perceive it.

Ishvar Darji, and his nephew Omprakash had no reason to care about life, to be optimistic, and yet they kept living, kept trying, right til the end, that was crazy. But the richer guy, who had so much going for him, the better caste, got depressed and wasn't happy in his life. I wanted to slap him at times.

great review. I don't know what John is talking about, is Canadian literature that depressing?

Stephanie said...

Debi - This book has been on my radar for years. I used to read a lot of Oprah's picks. I'm surprised it took me so long to read it. It was a wonderful book, but just so sad.

RaiderGirl - I knew you said this was one of your favorite books. I can certainly see why. I think you put it better than I did. As depressed as it made me, it really sits with me. The characters had such a real feeling to them. And I hurt when they did.

I loved Ishvar and Om. I just wanted to see them have some sort of happiness in their lives. But they really did handle things in stride. Maneck...I just wanted to choke him by the end.

All in all, a great book. I guess I will have to read more Canadian Lit to weigh in on the depressing aspect of it!!

Anonymous said...

I read this book maybe a year ago or more and really liked it. Whenever I see it on my bookshelf, I look upon it with fondness. It's so sad though, I can't imagine sleeping on the streets and slums like they did. Does make you grateful for what you have.

Melody said...

Great review, Stephanie! This definitely sounds worth reading. I've to add this to my wish list. Thanks for the review.

Kim L said...

That sounds like a great read! Thanks for sharing the review. I do find that Oprah tends to pick depressing books. I have to space those out, because sometimes I just want an effortless read.

Andi said...

I'm staring at it on my big TBR shelf, and it's laughing at me! OK, I'm moving it up near the top of the pile.

Lisa said...

I haven't read this one, but I've heard a great deal about it just recently it seems. I tend to like depressing books. I'm not sure why. I know that makes me sound weird, but I'm really not. :) I think I like books that are realistic, and let's face it, bad things happen to good people all the time. I like to see how people handle bad situations and triumph over adversity, even if its only in a very small way.

Ana S. said...

Like Debi, I can't believe I hadn't heard of this before. I also can't believe that until I read Midnight's Children last week, I knew next to nothing about what had happened in India in the 70's. I want to read more on the subject now that I do know, and this sounds like the perfect book.

Thanks for the fantastic review, Stephanie.

Iliana said...

Great review Stephanie. I had such a hard time getting into another story after I read this one. There were just so many emotions to deal with after this. It also made me a bit angry because I kept thinking, isn't something good going to happen to these people? I guess just angry at so many injustices in life you know. I really must read his other book, Family Matters.

Teddy Rose said...

I read this book several years ago and loved it. Yes it's depressing, extremly so, but it has stuck with me all of these years. Every once in awhile something comes up that makes me think of it and I remember it like I read it today. The characters still haunt me.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

I hadn't heard of this one, but I'm adding it to my wishlist (just as you did, Ha!). It's funny that you should mention heartwarming stories that make you feel good--my officemate was asking for such a book the other day and I was drawing an absolute blank!

Another good one about India and it's history (some about this particular time period as well) is Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Anonymous said...

I just finished A Fine Balance, and am a bit mystified about why Manek kills himself, leaving his mother and her "suicidal house" to fend on alone. He seemed rather giving and broad-minded with Dina and courageous with Dina's brother, so I was surprised by his sudden, self-serving departure. What do you all think?

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