Remarkable, unforgettable… (5 stars)
Source- Personal copy
First published by Faber and Faber in 1995. This edition is from 2006.
I read the paperback edition which is 614 pages
I completed this book a few days ago and have been pondering ever since then just what to say about it on my blog. It’s the kind of novel that a reader can fully immerse themselves in and the sort of book that aspiring writers would probably give up their right arm for- to be able to have the same kind of talent that this author does. Bleak yet beautiful and effortlessly told, I absolutely adored this wonderful novel.
A Fine Balance is set amidst political upheaval in 1970’s India and tells the story of the intertwining lives of strangers. There are impoverished tailors Ishvar and Omprakash- an uncle and nephew who have left their home village to try and earn money in the city, though soon realise that their troubles are far from over. Student Maneck has also left his home- in the mountains- to study, but is desperately homesick and resentful to his mother and father for encouraging him into these strange new settings. Finally there is widower Dina, a seamstress who takes in Maneck for board and lodging and also finds herself in charge of the two tailors in her cramped apartment. As the quartet get to know each other, initial mistrust slowly turns to friendship, and against an uncertain future and an ever-changing India, perhaps that may be all that each other can count upon.
The writing in this novel feels effortless. That is, it’s the sort of book that you consciously forget you are reading and are instead pulled directly into its pages- a complete sensory experience. Wonderfully atmospheric, India seeps from its chapters- a vibrant country of contradictions that the author has the utmost respect for, yet isn’t scared of showing its true faces- the corruption, the poverty, the heartache and the unfairness of how people of different castes are treated. Mistry dives directly into the dirty squalor of the slums, his descriptions gritty and detailed; he allows us to get to know the people he writes about- flaws and all- and through them, realise their shattered dreams.
The four central characters in this book made for amazingly compelling reading and by the time I finished this story, they genuinely felt like old friends. They are all very different and their journeys in life have all encountered diverging paths yet when they intersect the relationships between them feel very natural. Dina for example, has faced heartache yet remains independent and free-spirited. She could have done what was expected of a woman in her position yet instead chose an opposing path in life, much to her older brother’s frustration. She takes in Maneck for board money yet he later becomes the son that she never has. Her attitude towards the tailors too, begins as quite harsh and standoffish, yet as the book progresses she mellows. Dina was a woman I really enjoyed reading about as I get the impression that she is non-too-traditional of an Indian woman of that era.
I thought at first that Maneck was going to be somewhat ‘perfect’ in context but in actuality he wasn’t at all what I expected. I appreciated the evolving nature of his relationship with Dina and his friendship with Omprakash added some much needed humour to the plot. The difficulties in his family were well developed and I did pity him, though it is clear that his parents thought that they were merely doing their best for him in making the decisions that they did- something a lot of parents will identify with.
Om and his uncle were my favourite characters in this story, though I did want them to cut a break! Their lives had been so harsh, devastatingly so- and each time I saw a chink of light at the end of a very dark tunnel for them, something even more troubling appeared on the horizon. Yet, despite this their optimism was unfailing, especially for Ishvar who just wanted the best for his young nephew. Without elaborating too much, some of the situations that the duo found themselves in were utterly heartbreaking- it is unimaginable that some of the events that happened in this book were forced on people in the 1970’s. I really couldn’t comprehend it.
This novel indeed had its ups and downs and just when I thought things were picking up again, the story would instantly become poignant or devastating once more with some shocking twists and turns. The rug was literally pulled out from under me on several occasions. That’s the point of the novel though and basically a reflection on life in general- the author doesn’t sugar-coat his message. This is life. Life can be happy and sad, life can be unfair.
I don’t regret reading this book at all- even though I did lose part of my life to this for a good fortnight as I was so desperate to savour every word! India was truly brought to life for me in the pages of this remarkable, unforgettable story. It goes without saying that I recommend this book to everyone and it has sailed unequivocally into the list of my favourite books EVER!