Book Twenty-Four: A Fine Balance

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I’ve had A Fine Balance on my bookshelf for a while now, but I’d forgotten about it and only just got around to reading it. Why did I wait for so long?! This is by far the best book I have read in a very long time, it’s simply stunning from start to finish.

 

I knew from the first sentence that I was in for a good read – Rohinton Mistry’s writing is just so lyrical, it’s like that first burst on sunshine on an otherwise cold day – it wraps you up in it’s spell right away. It’s one of those books that you want to greedily devour yet savour at the same time. I simply didn’t want it to end. Luckily at over 600 pages it’s no quick read, but I am still mourning the fact that it’s over a few days after finishing.

 

A Fine Balance is set in 1970’s Bombay just after Prime Minister Indira Ghandi had implemented ‘the Emergency’ – a stringent set of measures to prevent civil uprising after accusations of corruption and cheating in the election. The story brings together four characters from extremely different backgrounds, who have each suffered their share of difficulty in very different ways.

 

There is Dina, widowed on her third wedding anniversary but desperate to maintain independence from her brother. In an attempt to make a living and keep her apartment, she starts a tailoring business and hires Ishvar and Om as tailors and takes on a paying guest, Maneck – and so begins the existence of an unlikely family unit.

 

Ishvar and Om have come to Bombay from their village, fleeing from the caste based violence that killed the other members of their family with the hope that they will make a decent living and someday return. They are from a caste of leather makers who have become (slightly) more prosperous by learning the trade of a tailor, much to the chagrin of the wealthy village members who see this as acting above their caste.

 

Maneck is the son of overbearing parents who have refused his wishes to join the family business and sent him to Bombay to study refrigeration and air-conditioning. Traumatised by bullies in his university hostel, he arrives at Dina’s desperate for refuge.

 

The story is essentially about the fine balance of suffering and happiness, wealth and poverty and cruelty and kindness that exists in life. Given the setting of political and economic turmoil, this balance is felt even more acutely. I guess if there were a moral to this story it would be that life is deeply unfair – those who suffer in the novel suffer deeply and those who cause suffering seem to prosper. At times this is a difficult read, a sad read, a painful read but it’s still a story not to be forgotten, words to be savoured and read again and again. The ending left me shivering and in shock, it’s such a powerful book, one that sends shockwaves and makes you feel like life will never be the same. Oddly that’s how I felt when I came back from a trip to India – truly changed on some level. I’d love to read it again… and again, it’s definitely on my list of favourites, possibly of all time. Read it and weep, but also fall in love.

 

No food this week unfortunately – I had in mind that I would cook the classic Bombay street food dish of bhel puri but it’s proving difficult to find all the ingredients! Someday I will track everything down and make it to add to this blog because it’s a very tasty dish indeed (although perhaps left to the professionals?)

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