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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry The fine balance being referred to in the title is between hope and despair. Unfortunately it left me with more despair than hope. Nevertheless, the small glimmer of hope that does appear is most precious in contrast to its surrounding despair.

Most of what I previously knew of life in India is what I learned from the movie "Slum Dog Millionaire." So perhaps I needed to be exposed to a more complete rendering of Indian life. But at least the movie ended with a burst of joy and happiness -- though a bit unrealistically. This book in contrast is a long drawn out taste of bitter medicine with not much reward at the end.

The book focuses on four intersecting lives during Indira Ghandi's Emergency measurers that date from 1975 to 1977. However, there are extensive narrative flashbacks to earlier times -- circa the 1947 partition and leading up to the 70's. The cruel effects of the emergency measures including mass sterilization, work camps and slum demolitions are described in the story. This novel was a real eye-opener to the gross injustices against the poor and helpless during this time. If you have any interest in India or the caste system this is a must read. But be forewarned: it can be very depressing. Yet, as depressing as it is, it's uplifting how these characters not only endure their hardships, but endure with generosity and compassion.

This novel is a testament to how the human spirit can prevail through hopelessness and despair. The following is an excerpt from the book that caught my eye:

What an unreliable thing is time--when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy. Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl's hair. Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair." .... "But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly."

After finishing the book it has occurred to me that the title, "A Fine Balance," can have a slightly different meaning. The story shows that freedom from poverty doesn't bring happiness, nor does abject poverty. The secret is in achieving a fine balance between the two. It's not between hope and despair, but rather a stoic acceptance versus hopeless despair.

The book deserves five stars, but I can't give five stars to a book that makes me feel such sadness and despair. Nevertheless, I acknowledge the book is well written and the plot carefully crafted. I really have to admire the author for putting together a heck of a story.

The following is a review from PageADay's Book Lover's Calendar for 3/13/13:
Reviewers and voracious readers routinely rank this exceptional novel among their top ten of all time. Set in 1975, in an unnamed coastal city in India, four strangers are forced to share one cramped apartment due to the recent declaration of a State of Emergency. Often compared to Charles Dickens’s character-rich fiction, A Fine Balance is a modern classic that’s not to be missed.
A FINE BALANCE, by Rohinton Mistry (1997; Vintage, 2001)