A FINE BALANCE
Rohinton Mistry (McClelland and Stewart, 1995) ISBN: 0-679-44608
Rohinton Mistry’s Giller Prize-winning novel A Fine Balance is one of those books I am able to appreciate only on an aesthetic level. It is very well-written, intricately plotted, and full of excellently-drawn, memorable characters. I liked it well enough to start with. The final third of the novel, though, is (spoiler alert) an intentional and miserable spiral downwards. Fair warning: this review will give away the ending of the novel.
A Fine Balance is the story of five people who together struggle to make a living in the changing economic climate of 1970s and 1980s India. There are two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, who have been driven from their village through a combination of caste-violence and economic necessity to Mumbai. There is the Parsi widow Dina, who employs the tailors when her own eyesight has failed to the extent that she can no longer support herself with her own sewing. Then there is the student Maneck who boards with Dina while studying in Mumbai.
The story progresses through their slowly developing relationships and increasing caste tensions in Indira Gandhi’s India. In order to stymy an increase in poverty, the government has commenced a program of forced sterilization. Mumbai’s ever-growing population has been driven into overcrowded slums. The risks of economic failure for all participants in the story are very real and dire.
I am not a person who needs a happy ending to enjoy something. I appreciate the constant building up of hope in Sons of Anarchy, for instance, and the various facets of plot and character combining to throw anti-hero Jax Teller back into a place of despair. There are always aspects of life which are beyond the control of main characters. It is important that characters do change events in their own stories, and it is important that they also fail and are thrown curve-balls.
The reason I bring up Sons of Anarchy is because, if one doesn’t pay attention to characterisation and plot, the story might seem to run entirely on diabolus ex machina. A Fine Balance has a worse case of this. The characters have their struggles and successes—but in the end every character ends up in a much worse situation than when they started, almost entirely because of matters out of their control.
This is of course realistic, especially for impoverished people with severely limited options, but it still feels like too much diabolus ex machina. Nothing the characters do matters at all in the long run. Maneck’s suicide in particular seems egregious; an extra layer of misery to ensure the readers do not miss the novel’s message.
For all that, A Fine Balance is also a very self-important book, which can become tiresome. There is little room for humour. Everything has meaning. Such books may be necessary to the literary fabric of our society, but I don’t think I particularly want to read them.