A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“You see, we cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. 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.’ ”
A Fine Balance
I sometimes take a moment to focus on the corner of my office. The way the two walls come together forming a line, a demarcation. I think of it as bringing the two halves of my brain together, to focus, to think, to ponder. It is an illusion of course, but I’m fortunate that some of my life can be given to fanciful thoughts like thinking I can marshal the powers of my mind by staring meditatively at a conjunction. We all worry about things, ponder things, and even dream about being somewhere else or about being someone else. We all have loose threads that bother us, sometimes they are consuming us, and little do we know these bothersome threads are becoming stronger, like a man imprisoned, who spends vast amounts of time doing pushups and situps, waiting for the bars to open.
But it is a small matter,
because I eat three meals a day, take a hot shower every morning, and sleep six solid hours a night on a bed that is not too soft nor too hard.
I have rights that protect me from my government (at least for the moment). I have law enforcement that doesn’t have to be bribed to protect me from those that wish to do harm for harms sake. I have a circle of family and friends who wish me well and will lend a shoulder to lean on if I falter. I have healthcare and life insurance in case I am unlucky. I live in a bubble of civilization that almost insures me a certain length of life span.
So when I do get time to snip those loose threads of my life I’m doing so with a brain that has the luxury of worrying about something more than just NEEDS. As large as my “problems” become they are still,
but a small matter.
There are a vast array of characters in this novel. Some are at a slightly higher economic level than the rest, but regardless of their circumstances no one can feel safe, no one can worry about matters beyond the most basic needs of water, food, and shelter.
The bulk of this story occurs in 1975 in an unnamed Indian city by the sea. It is the time of The Great Emergency which really means that the government has declared a form of martial law...for the safety of the people of course. They have implemented a rigorous Family Planning Program that at first entices people with cash and better ration cards for food if they are willing to have the operation for sterilization. When bribery doesn’t elicit the results the government wants their methods become more invasive and more drastic.
The government also implements a beautification program that translates to bulldozing all the temporary structures that have been erected around the city. These were thrown together to house the influx of country people coming to the metropolis to try and scrounge a living doing what others don’t want to do. The hodge podge of housing built out of cast off materials, rubbish to people of means, is not beautiful, not in the way that we are taught to evaluate beauty, but the creativity and the determination to build something for themselves is beyond beauty. It is simply magnificent. As they make a little money they fix something, add something, make it more their home.
You build it and they will come. There is no field of dreams in this India.
So the government eliminates these eye sores, but does not provide a place for these people to live. They are thrown to the elements to shift for themselves. If truth be known the government would like to see these people vanish, stacked in the same pile as the rubbled remains of their homes.
“What sense did the world make? Where was God, the Bloody Fool? Did He have no notion of fair and unfair? Couldn't He read a simple balance sheet? He would have been sacked long ago if He were managing a corporation, the things he allowed to happen...”
The two tailors Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash were there when the bulldozers started knocking down homes. Only after all the homes were destroyed did the monster machines stop for twenty minutes to allow people to salvage what they could.
The tailors are working for a woman named Dina Dalal who is fortunate to have her own apartment. She still mourns the death of her husband taken from her in a freakish accident many years ago. She nearly went over the brink with grief. “Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.” She has a relationship with her brother that is complicated. She dislikes having to accept his help; and yet, finds herself going to him for money when she is short of rent. In a bid for more independence and more financial security she decides to start making clothes for a large manufacturing company, but her eyesight is failing and so she hires Ishvar and Omprakash to do the sewing.
Further help arrives in the form of Maneck Kohlah, a rich boy in comparison to the other people in the apartment, who contributes much needed rent while he is going to school.
She is not supposed to run a business out of her apartment. She is not supposed to sublease. The landlord is looking for any reason to get his hands on this apartment so he can finally break the rent controls. It is a recipe for disaster born out of desperation. It is a bid for freedom.
“After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents - a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life.”
Through a series of unpredictable events they all end up living in the apartment together. The tailors out on the veranda. Dina shoehorned into the sewing room. Maneck in Dina’s old bedroom. There are difficulties mainly because Omprakash begins to resent Dina’s position as overseer. Om perceives her as a big shot, a rich person, when nothing could be further from the truth. Being a manager myself I really identified with Dina’s issues. She would try to be more lenient and the two men would take more and more advantage of her. She would try yelling and the men would become resentful. She would try negotiating with them, but any concessions she was willing to make was never enough. How quickly the men forgot how bad things were before the found the benevolence of the woman with an apartment.
Despite those issues for a little while, too short of time, they were happy.
“…God is a giant quiltmaker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.”
The mystery of happiness. It is so hard to obtain and so difficult to duplicate. You can bring together the same people under the same circumstances and not be able to achieve it again. There is a magic missing, a zing, a spice, a mood or just the will to let it happen.
There are a host of satellite characters who add so much vitality to this novel. My favorite was the Beggarmaster. As his title indicates he managed and took care of an army of beggars. He also, for a price, extended protection to people like the tailors, to people like Dina. He is as powerful as a magistrate and the police know not to mess with him or his people. He sees everyone the same whether they are people missing limbs or people still retaining every body part they came into this world with. He sees the world through the lens of the poor.
”Freaks, that’s what we are--all of us.”... “I mean, every single human being. And who can blame us? What chance do we have, when our beginnings and endings are so freakish? Birth and death--what could be more monstrous than that? We like to deceive ourselves and call it wondrous and beautiful and majestic, but it’s freakish, let’s face it.”
The Beggarmaster would have been perfectly at home stepping into a Dickens novel as would many of the characters in this novel. Many reviewers have made comparisons to Charles Dickens and nowhere is it more apparent than in the cast of characters that Rohinton Mistry has assembled. Dickens would have also certainly loved taking on the issue of forced sterilization, the issue of sanitation, the issue of deprivation, and the overreach of a government completely out of touch with the largest majority of their population...the poor.
You will find yourself living with these characters. You will even feel like you are sharing their deprivation through the power of a gifted writer’s words. Success is fleeting. Disaster ever present. Hopelessness is a shadow around everyone’s heart. No one is immune and everyone is walking on the ledge hoping the wind doesn’t blow. The things that matter to them the most are the essential things. The very things the rest of us take for granted.
Rohinton Mistry very well may have written a masterpiece. I want to thank Lynda McCalman for not only recommending it, but also for saying it was her favorite book. I can’t resist when people say a book is their favorite book. So what I would like is for everyone to share their favorite book with me on the comments thread. I will do my best to eventually read every one of them that I haven’t read before. This novel is Highly Recommended!
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