“Let me tell you a secret: there is no such thing as an uninteresting life.”
I originally read A Fine Balance when I was in middle school, 11 or 12 years old. My mother had just finished it for the third time and told me what a marvelous story it was, and I decided to tackle the 700+ pages that sat before me. Since then, I had forgotten the story, but remembered the feeling of the book. I was much too young at the time to understand some of the topics, some of the intricacies of the tales that wove together seamlessly, but I understood the sentiment that was left behind.
Rohinton Mistry created a masterpiece. Following the lives of four distinct characters who all come together in a manner of self-preservation, we delve into the world of India during the era of the Emergency. It was a time of unrest and worry, police brutality and government corruption, crime and a lack of punishment for those who deserved it. In this world, we see our protagonists struggle to survive and thrive, constantly thrown back down in the muck and the mire. The book mainly takes place in the year of 1975-76, with elongated flashbacks into the lives of Dina Dilal, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, and Maneck Kohlah.
Dina Dilal is a fiercely independent woman who must return again and again to her brother to seek his help financially, even though it pains her to do so. She is from the city where most of the novel takes place, and we see her life unfold without her consent. To the reader, she feels modern in a period caught on tradition, yet struggles in this tradition-bound society.
Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle and nephew tailors, come to the city from a small village in search of work and fortune. Leaving behind lives of pain and hardship, they enter the city and only find more difficulties. Their intent to rise in the world is thwarted again and again, but they stand in the face of adversity and keep pushing forward. These characters also break tradition, like Dina Dilal, by becoming tailors when they were born into the Chamaar caste of leather curers. The two finally find work with Dina Dilal, who hires them to do work for an export company.
Our final protagonist is Maneck Kohlah, a boy from the mountains sent to the city to study. His mother and Dina Dilal were childhood friends and thus he joins this patchwork quilt of lives that have become so cleverly stitched together. Though his struggles might not seem as brutal as those of the tailors or Dina Dilal, Maneck deals with his own troubles throughout the novel, ones more tied to middle-class difficulties during the Emergency. His viewpoint is different from those of the other characters, and for this he becomes a balancing character, allowing the others to whirl around him.
The theme of balance, so clearly stated in the title, is heavily drawn throughout the book, with the characters constantly trying to find balance in their lives, their work, and the country they once called home. There is also the theme of the quilt, which comes into play later in the novel, which illustrates the unity of each person, how each is connected even outside of the four protagonists, to create this quilt of a story.
“So that’s the rule to remember, the whole quilt is more important than any single square.”
The book ends with an epilogue dated 1984, eight years after the end of the last chapter. We see all four characters coming back together one last time, and see the last patches of the quilt being stitched in place. A tragic book, a necessary book. I give it 10/10.
Some beautiful quotes from the book:
“I think our sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing are all calibrated for the enjoyment of a perfect world. But since the world is imperfect, we must put blinders on the senses.”
“The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously,like a soap bubble at its limit.”
“There is always hope– hope enough to balance our despair. Or we would be lost.”
“Where was God, the Bloody Fool?”
“In fact, that is the central theme of my life story– loss. But isn’t it the same with all life stories? Loss is essential. Loss is part and parcel of that necessary calamity we called life.”
Here is the first page of the book, if you need more convincing to go and read it.