This is my review of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.
From the opening scene of passengers on an overcrowded train, Rohinton Mistry reveals his mastery of storytelling. The book reminded me at first of another modern classic, “A Suitable Boy” but proves to be much darker. The main characters suffer terribly and the powerful and corrupt for the most part seem to prosper unpunished, although the bleakness is made endurable by a mixture of irony and humour, unexpected moments of beauty and joy, combined with curiosity as to where the plot will twist next.
Like a modern Dickens or Zola, Mistry’s flowing style carries us through a complex and densely-woven plot, set mainly during the “State of Emergency” in mid-1970s India. He focuses on four main characters who form an unlikely bond: the low caste tailor Ishvar and his belligerent nephew Om, who have come to the unnamed “city by the sea” to make a living; Dina, the beautiful, spirited widow who prefers to maintain a poverty-stricken independence rather than accept a suitor arranged by her bullying brother; her lodger Maneck, forced to study refrigeration technology since the economic changes which have reached even the foothills of the Himalayas are threatening the survival of his family’s general stores.
With incidents of caste hatred, slum clearance, forced labour and sterilisation, Mistry reveals the strengthen and resilience of the human spirit: how those who are already poor manage to endure further hardship, corruption, and the cruelty of both the powerful and of those who do their bidding and impose crass laws through their own need to survive.
What makes this book great is Mistry’s ability to change the reader’s perspective on life – his power to cause a materialistic westerner to view life differently, to question accepted values and to feel more empathy and even respect for those who become beggars and slum-dwellers.