Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Ministry (1995, 614 pages)

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is a very powerful deeply sad novel set, though the city is not named,  in Mumbai, from 1974 to 1984.   This is a magnificent book that takes us deeply into lives of people caught up in the turmoil and incredible corruption of India.   This is a grand novel in the tradition of the great works of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo.  It focuses on the interconnected lives of several families, from relatively affluent to the poorest castes of citizens.   Much of the novel  deals with social issues arising from the very deep embedding of the caste system in India.  Two of the central characters come from what is commonly called an untouchable caste whose members had the job by custom  of removing and using the bodies of dead animals, mostly cows to make leather.  We see the terrible hardships under which they live, the incredible cruelties they must accept.  Two of the untouchables, Dalits, are apprenticed at a young age to become tailors, a huge leap for them.   We follow their lives and get to know them well.   

This is a grim dark world, at every turn something terrible happens to people we have come to like.  Anyone with any money lords it over those with less.  We meet lots of people we hate, , some turn out to be more human than we thought.  We learn of the terrible world of beggars and we meet a character that makes Fagin seem like a very  kind social worker, the Beggermaster.  There is some happiness in the novel found through bonds formed but it is all fragile and subject to the caprices of some very cruel Gods.   

This is a very rich beautifully written novel.   The characters are very real.  Parts of the novel are truly heartbreaking.  The ending is totally devastating in its absurdity and in the sense it conveys that life is barely worth enduring.   This is a great novel, though don't read it if you are in a dark place in your life.

I previously read and enjoyed the author's Family Matters.   A Fine Balance is by far the superior of the two works.   If you go on Amazon you will find lots of glowing five star reviews of this book.  A few people do say it  is melodramatic at times and relies on coincidence a lot but then again so do Dickens and Hugo.  Some reviewers have said his work has the social scope of Tolstoy but I do think that is going to far.  I would place this on a lifetime reading list were I to prepare one.

I hope to read his A Long Journey soon.

Mel u


JoV said...

It's great that you finally read the book. It sits on my TBR list for 2 years now not sure when I'll ever read it but I must try harder. Thanks for the review.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Mel, this is a very good review of A FINE BALANCE. I plead guilty to not having read it since my response to your review of FAMILY MATTERS last year. In fact, I admit to not having read any Indian author in the past few months.

Rosaria Williams said...

It sounds marvelous, illuminating modern issues the Western world has been blind to.

Billy O'Callaghan said...

Nice review of a great writer's work, Mel. I'd rate A Fine Balance as one of the finest novels of our time and this is probably Mistry's best, beautifully written, incredibly moving But everything he has written is, as far as I am concerned, essential reading.
Keep up the good work with the blog!

Mel u said...

JoV - this is a truly great book. Fit to stand with the great 19th century novels

Billy - thanks so much for the kind words and for your short story posts on Facebook

Prashant - this is a must read. Thanks as always for your comments

Rosaria - if you are not yet into Indian fiction, this would be a perfect place to start. Thanks very much for your visit

Linda Lappin said...

I agree that this is one of the greatest traditional novels of the 20th century. Mistry is akin to Dickens, I find, in the scope, development of characters, intricacy of plot, all woven into the background tapestry of major issues and events in Indian society.
There is a colorfulness and also a zaniness to both style and plot probably deriving from the great indian traditions of story telling, and also, I find, a fascinating clash of west and east, a clash between the ultimate drive of the novel form (as conceived in its earliest English origins as the story of how a nobody gains a name and improves economic status) and a very eastern sense of Karma and caste, we can do little to change our fates, which are, anyway, just maya or illusory. This is why probably one of my favorite characters is "hair cutter" But Mel you are right, this is a book to make you laugh and cry.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Thank you for this glowing review! This book has been in my radar for a while, but its length intimidated me. Now your review motivates me. I love melodramatic works. I am often told that Middle East Literature is melodramatic. But I don't want them any other way. I will certainly read this soon and share my views. :)