I’d say by a small margin I favor nonfiction over fiction in my reading, but A Fine Balance won me over early, and held my interest throughout. I found it easy to care about these characters, and to root for them to prevail against seemingly hopeless odds.
Set in India during the time of Indira Gandhi, A Fine Balance explores the relationship among four main characters: A woman who ekes out a tolerable living making clothes, the student son of a friend of hers who comes to live with her, and two poor Untouchable tailors—uncle and nephew—whom she hires to do some work for her.
Be forewarned, this is a long and mostly depressing book, with tragedy heaped upon misery heaped upon disaster. Do the main characters indeed prevail in the end? Frankly, no. Oh sure, one can rhapsodize about their pluckiness and their ability to absorb suffering, but they all end up dead or severely physically or emotionally crippled.
They are indeed fortunate in one key respect. The four protagonists discover the value of—and briefly get to experience—love and true friendship and human connection. Unfortunately, they’re still stuck in a world in which the vast majority of people have no appreciation for such things, and in the end, as in real life, the bad guys end up on top, and these more enlightened folks are simply crushed.
For that is one of the messages the book brought home to me—just how much their travails, and human suffering in general, do not come about by chance or through the agency of blind nature, but as a direct and indirect result of countless evil and misguided human decisions. These fine people are destroyed by greed-driven capitalists, corrupt politicians, criminals, and ignoramuses who favor adherence to custom and religious superstition over basic human decency. When selfishness and stupidity reign supreme, lives like those depicted in this book are the inevitable result.
Interestingly, most third world countries provide even more miserable existences for their citizenry. India is actually a democracy of sorts. Much like the United States was historically fortunate enough to have the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and other extraordinary personages come together at just the right historic moment at the founding of this country, India was blessed with Gandhi, and with Nehru and others that were far above the norm for the leaders of a new nation. Unfortunately, judging from the Indian society depicted in this book, much of whatever head start such leadership gave them has seemingly been frittered away. Certainly no one in this book pauses to consider whether their approach to life and to their fellow man is consistent with the Mahatma’s insistence on pure truth and nonviolence, and this is to their discredit.
I would mention also that I read A Fine Balance as part of a book club which consisted of myself and about ten women. The majority—though not all—of the women did not care for it. The near-consensus was that it was a clear “guy book” rather than a “chick book,” given its violent and depressive elements. I say this not because I necessarily agree (in fact, I would venture to say that it is a finely written story with complex and interesting characters and many positive and moving interactions among the main foursome especially, and thus should appeal to readers of either gender), but merely to report what seemed to be the common response from this particular group of women readers.
In any case, I give this powerful and moving story a strong recommendation. Rohinton Mistry is a writer who brings honor to his craft.