A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Abandoned, but not lightly…

😦

a fine balanceShortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize, and recommended by just about everyone who’s read it, this book has accumulated 244 5-star reviews on Amazon UK, and only three 1-stars. Well, four now. I began the book on the 27th July and finally abandoned it on 1st September at just over the half-way mark. So this review is an attempt to explain why I struggled so badly with a book that apparently the whole world loves.

The book is set in the period of the late ’70s/early ’80s, probably in Bombay, I think, though I don’t think Mistry ever actually says so. Mrs Ghandi is in power and ‘The Emergency’ has been declared – a period, it would seem, when the government was cracking down on opposition and civil liberties in general. I say ‘it would seem’ because again Mistry doesn’t really bother to tell us about the political situation – he implies his characters are too poor or disinterested to care about politics and, since we see only through their eyes, we get only a vague, fuzzy view of what’s going on. Fine, if you already have an in-depth knowledge of Indian politics of four decades ago, but unfortunately I don’t.

Indira Gandhi Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS
Indira Gandhi
Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS

The book starts with the coming together of four people whose stories make up the heart of the book. Dina Dalal, a widow on the edge of poverty, takes on a contract to make clothing for one of the big new companies that have taken work away from the traditional tailors. To fulfil the work, she hires two such dispossessed tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash. At the same time she takes in student Maneck, the son of an old school friend, as a paying lodger. The first half of the book is taken up with the backstories of these characters, explaining what tragedies have led them to this point. And when I say tragedies, boy, do I mean tragedies. Rape, murder, all forms of cruelty, racial and religious attacks, threatened incest – all human misery is here, often several times over. But these poor people don’t realise this has actually been the good part of their lives – things are going to get worse…

But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

Mistry’s writing style is very good. The descriptions of these awful lives in this horrible country are detailed and convincing. So convincing, in fact, that one is left wondering why anyone would choose to go on living at all. Each day is a joyless burden, filled with nastiness and filth. There are only two groups of people in this country: the oppressors and the oppressed. No hope, no chance for escape from the degradations and privations that increase with every passing day. Not a picture of India that I recognise from other novels, the best of which do show the extreme poverty and huge inequalities, but also show the diversity and even vibrancy of the country as a whole.

The characterisation is strong in the sense that each of the four main protagonists is well delineated and their behaviour is consistent with their past experiences. But the problem is that Mistry clearly has a political agenda and the characters are no more than puppets. I felt that Mistry had started with a list of all the bad things about life under Mrs Ghandi, added all the different ways people can be nasty to each other, and then dumped all this misery on the heads of this tiny group of characters. I’m sure all these bad things happened, indeed still do, but I’m equally sure they don’t happen every single day to the same people. If there’s a riot, they’ll be caught up in it. If a slum is pulled down, it’ll be their slum. If a father is murdered for being the wrong caste, it’ll be their father. If a wife is raped for being poor…well, you get my point. Even if one of them pauses to make friends with a dog, you can be sure the dog will die hideously within a chapter. The strange result of this was that I didn’t care what happened to any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as people – merely as fairground ducks for Mistry to shoot over and over again.

Mumbai slum
Mumbai slum

I’ve had a long, long time to think about why I found it so difficult to pick the book up and read even a few pages each day, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the book lacks two fundamental necessaries. Firstly, there is no plot. There is simply a description of the miserable lives of these miserable people – we’re not heading towards, or even away from, anything. And secondly, there is no glimmer of hope. I’m not suggesting there should be a happy ending with them all becoming rich and happy, but there has to be a possibility of something in the future that would make their present lives worth the horrible daily struggle. But there isn’t – it’s crystal clear that things are going to get worse and worse until Mistry finally runs out of things to torment them with; at which point they will be abandoned to their miserable fates. (When I decided to give up, I flicked ahead to the end to see if I was being unfair – I wasn’t.) I’m a political animal, so I love novels that include an element of politics in them. But there must be something else in them too – otherwise it’s not a novel. This book is about one important sector of society, the poor, at a particular point of Indian history; but I got no overall picture of the society, no understanding of why the political situation had reached this stage, no glimmer of what opposition might be in train. As an extremely lengthy description of how awful life can be for people caught up in hopeless poverty and cruelty, full marks. But then we already know that, don’t we? We watch the news…don’t we? A novel needs to be more than that, surely? It needs to tell us what we don’t already know – it needs to make us think…to care. And ultimately this one doesn’t…

‘Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’ he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.’

For me, Mistry failed to achieve a balance – the book is too heavily weighted towards misery and hopelessness. The quality of the characterisation and descriptive writing makes me feel that my 1-star rating is harsh, but since I can’t bring myself to finish the book, I feel it’s the only rating I can give it.

If you’re one of the people who loved it, I’ll be interested to hear why…

Amazon US Link

55 thoughts on “A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

  1. I’m so proud that you say exactly what you think–no matter what! You presented your argument very well, too. I mean, this professor is convinced. It made a lot of sense to me.

    *laughs* Really enjoyed the part where everything went wrong for the characters. That would be a bummer. Was there really a dog that died?

            • Yes, I think he must have been having a bad day the day he wrote the book. (Haha! I bet you’re assuming he was so grotesquely ugly that I felt we wouldn’t be able to resist… the dull truth is that I forgot!)

            • *laughs* Oddly that’s rather a sweet thought – so long as they just nibbled a bit. (NO!!! None of them are ugly!! They’re all gorgeous!! Even…you-know-who!!)

            • No, you didn’t. And I have no thoughts on it. Never read it – never watched it! *smug and proud face* (Oh dear! Please, dearest C-W-W – please, I’m begging you – please, PLEASE don’t make me read Twilight… *falls to knees and raises hands in desperate supplication*)

              Well, you’d better come up with one or else I’ll only be able to read books written by beautiful people in future…

            • *laughing lots* I won’t make you! Promise. I’ve never read them either… I was just thinking it would be possible that you liked them. I mean, Darby is a sort of vampire–in a twisted sort of way. (What do you have against them?)

              Rats. It’s like watching your best friend grow up and say, “I can’t play any of those rude and crude games anymore.”

            • Phew! Thank you! I don’t have much against them, except the vampires, the fantasy, the teenage kickass heroes and heroines, the hype and the vampires… Darby is NOT a vampire! He’s a haughty monster-hunter! (Haha! It appears they’re making a movie of P&P & Zombies – please, please do a ripio!)

              *laughing* Oh, no, no, no! I don’t want to grow up!! Whatever shall we do??

            • That’s right! I forgot he was a hunter! Cool. They are? Nice. I’d love to rip that. But Lizio swinging a katana just won’t be right.

              Well, I don’t want to turn your respectable blog un-respectable. There’s nothing for it, I fear. *kicks the dirt*

            • I’m so glad you’ve finally realised he’s cool! I knew you would eventually. I’m just worried about Lizio ruining her ballgown…

              *shocked face* Oh no! Is my blog respectable?? Yucketh! This is just getting worse and worse… (*chuckling* Such a sweet image!)

            • Yes, and now you’ve accepted that, I’m sure you’ll soon realise how cool it is to dance the cotillion too…

              (Yes! That was the image in my head too! Frayed trousers and scuffed boots…awww!)

  2. FictionFan – I’m sorry to hear you were so disappointed with this. That said though, I truly respect and admire your candid and thoughtful post about it. Books need to have something to draw us in – a purpose to the story. If you didn’t find it, it’s little wonder you didn’t finish this. And that’s not to mention that if one has an interest in something (in your case, politics) and expects that something to be in a novel, it leaves a hole if it’s not there. To be honest, too, I think I’d find it hard to take all that misery, however authentically it’s portrayed, without feeling that there’s some goal in it if I can put it that way. Perhaps I’ll wait on this one…

    • Yes, the lack of a goal was exactly the problem. It felt to me like Mistry would have been better writing editorials or magazine articles about the poverty and inequality of life in India rather than trying to use a fictional form. But since I seem to be in a tiny minority, I’m willing to accept that other people are finding things in the book that I’m missing…

  3. oOPS – what a wonderful start to a post pressed too soon. Perhaps I should just leave it there, with no explanation. (Thinks – yes, let’s, keep a sense of mystery and confusion alive)

    But you argue the rationale for your dislike, as ever, well (I say, as ever…….the books we have both currently been in the middle of, and drawing different opinions on, inevitably have me in’we agree to differ (But she’s wrong, in my inner dialogue)

    This was read so long ago ( I think)that i remember nothing much. Which isn’t a reflection on any book, more on my memory. Hence why some books are re-read again and again

    Anyway, unfortunately I………….

    • Haha! I was just about to send for the air-sea rescue in case you’d suddenly fallen in a river! Or been abducted by aliens. Or been struck dumb by the horror of having to read my thousand word rant…

      Yes, it’s odd – I can’t say I hated this exactly – just found it provoked no real emotion in me at all. I think I’d actually rather read a book I hate (aka The Goldfinch) than one that leaves me empty…

  4. It’s a shame this book didn’t work for you, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. I couldn’t agree more with your point about a novel needing to tell us what we don’t already know and to make us think. If a novel doesn’t have this then there can feel as if there’s very little point in carrying on reading. I don’t think this book’s for me, but I enjoyed reading your post on it 🙂

    • Thanks, Gemma! It surprised me because really it sounds like the type of book I should love, and so many people whose opinions I respect have recommended it. I feel as if I must have missed something…but I looked very hard! Don’t let me put you off it though – I’m in a tiny minority with it, it would appear.

  5. Well argued, as LF said. I read this in 2000 while working at a bookstore and starting my MFA program. One degree, one child, and 14 years later, I cannot recall (similar to LF) why I loved the book except to say that the country itself became a character. I do recall there being some humor midst the misery, but now I’m wondering if I’m recalling correctly. And I usually want there to be some hope for at least one character, so now you make me wonder….But after reading your review, I’m not sure I want to go back and reread the book to find out if I still feel the same. Perhaps I’ll just let the sleeping dog snoooooooozzzzzzz……..

    • There was some humour, but not a lot (at least not that I got, though my mind may have been on strike by that stage) and it often seemed to be kind of slapstick and cruel – like people being seriously injured by a massive toppling picture of Mrs Gandhi etc. I did think it created a country as character – I think my problem was that it’s not a country I recognise as India. At least, it’s only one aspect of the country that is India, and he seems to have extrapolated out to make that be the whole country. But I do accept that so many people love it that I must be missing something – some books just don’t match some readers.

      PS The snoozing dog? I’m afraid it died – horribly! 😉

  6. I’m so sorry you didn’t enjoy this because for me it is one of the great books and deserves to become a classic. It forces those of us in the West to face the harsh lives that so many in the third world face and the corruption that blights those lives even more. I think Mistry is simply one of the great writers and I mourn the fact that he doesn’t write more. I would suggest that you try something else of his, but if his style sin’t for you the there’s no point really. But I did respect your honest review.

    • I am too, because I really expected to love it. And I did admire his writing a lot – and I thought his characters were very well observed. It was just the content – maybe because I am quite political and so felt he wasn’t telling me much I didn’t know. I really kept hoping that I’d feel differently about it as it went on, but eventually it became obvious that I wouldn’t, so no point in going on. Oh well! But maybe I’ll try one of his others sometime and see if it was just this particular book – is there one you would recommend?

        • Looking at the blurb for it, it certainly seems to look at a wider sector of society – I think it was the almost exclusive concentration on the extremely poor that bothered me most in A Fine Balance. Thank you – I shall put it on the list for a future read, once I’ve given enough time to get over my disappointment of this one. 🙂

  7. I love this book, sorry 🙂 sorry you didn’t get on with it. The politics aren’t explained in great detail but I found I learned a lot and was shocked about what I learned. The story is sad and makes for difficult reading at times but I thought it so worth it. I thought Mistry developed the relationship between the characters beautifully. Their lives could only be miserable but somehow Mistry makes them shine.

    • I’m sorry too, because I really thought it was just the kind of book I normally love. And clearly so many people do that I couldn’t possibly call it a ‘bad’ book. It just didn’t work for me – I felt the constant heaping on of more misery to the very small central group just didn’t ring true. Also reading it twenty years after it was written I think maybe we’re all more aware now of the poverty in some countries than we were when it was written, so I didn’t get the same feeling of learning something or being shocked. Years of 24-hour news and internet have made us all so much more conscious of the rest of the world, perhaps. I’m glad you loved it though. 🙂

  8. I really liked your well thought out reasoning for not continuing with this book, this isn’t one that I’d be drawn to anyway and I empathise with your feeling of lack of moving towards something in this novel. It’s a shame that the characters had so much misery heaped upon them that it ceased to be meaningless to you. I don’t think anyone could say you didn’t persevere 😉

    • Thanks, Cleo! I certainly feel as if I persevered – I feel as if I’ve been reading it for ever! In fact, it was actually making me go into a total reading slump – funny how some books just become almost impossible to read. But eventually too much misery becomes as hard to empathise with as total happiness…

  9. Not a book to read if you’re feeling a little blue? When the word Booker is written anywhere on the cover of a book, I approach it with caution. Often won or shortlisted on literary merits and entertainment is sometimes forgotten. Great review – as always:)

    • Thanks! 🙂

      Yes, sometimes the Booker sticker should be seen as a warning rather than a recommendation. And you’re so right – if it isn’t entertaining or at least involving then I’m afraid it can become too much of an effort to read…

  10. Wow ! Almost every social media encounter has led to someone recommending or praising this book but I’m glad I read your review 🙂 Its no longer on my TBR ! And this is also my main problem with some Indian writers – their description of India is of a country utterly hopeless – the success stories are conveniently forgotten – I was even planning a post on it and now this review has given me the motivation to write it. 🙂
    And if possible, do read about Indira Gandhi – she is one political figure worth reading up on 😀

    • Yes, it does seem to be a thing with some Indian authors – not that I’ve read too many. Funnily enough, my country (Scotland) was the same for a long time – every book or film or TV programme only showed the negative sides. We’ve become a bit more balanced over the last decade or two, but there’s still a tendency to run ourselves down. Nobody would deny either country has too much poverty and division, but concentrating only on the bad is no more enlightening than only showing the good…

      Thanks for the lovely Tweet, and I look forward to reading your own post! 😀

  11. I’m supposed to read this book sometime (part of Man Booker challenge), but I always pick it up and then leave it behind in my library. It sounded so dismal. I think it was that time period when it was considered that to write good Indian literature you had to be tragic. I am a little relieved that these days Indian writing is no longer limited to that.

    • Yes, there does seem to be a whole raft of Indian literature that only concentrates on the bleakest bits. Not saying these should be ignored, but you need a bit of balance to make things believable…

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