Review of "A Fine Balance" by Rohintin Mistry

Here is a book that could be classified under the heading “humanizing novels.” It takes an exotic, unknown subject for Americans–India during the time of its “Emergency” in 1975-76–and through incisive, third-person narrative, fully realizes the human experience of people living in Mumbai during that agonizing time.

Through the experiences of four characters–the middle-class widow Dina, the college student Maneck who lodges with her, and the pair of “Untouchable” class tailors Ishvar and Om–Mistry makes the reality of this oppressive time of forced sterilizations, political thuggery, and unbelievable suffering very real. It is a book that is compelling and revolting at the same time. You want to know how they’ll make out, but you are also dreading the next awful occurrence in their miserable time.

It’s comprehensive telling of several narratives illuminating central human truths reminds the reader of Charles Dickens. Its humanizing vision of people transcending class barriers to care for each other recalls John Steinbeck’s work.

While I was rather discouraged by the unfortunate outcomes for the fours characters, I was also mightily impressed with Mistry’s compassionate attention to the details–many of them disgustingly real–of his characters’ lives.  And while convincingly relating their individual truths, Mistry relates his cosmological view of how humans must negotiate reality.  Among the many choice quotations in this 624-page book:

“If there was an abundance of misery in the world, there was also sufficient joy, yes – as long as one knew where to look for it.”  

“Let me tell you a secret: there is no such thing as an uninteresting life. One day you must tell me your full and complete story, unabridged and unexpurgated.We will set aside some time for it, and meet. It’s very important.     Maneck smiled. ‘Why is it important?’     It’s extremely important because it helps to remind yourself of who you are. Then you can go forward, without fear of losing yourself in this ever-changing world.”  

“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.”  

Wikiness reader, if you are looking for a novel that will humanize the most destitute people on the planet for you, reminding you of your basic humanity and your connection with every other suffering person, this book is it.

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