Tuesday, August 04, 2015

'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry

4 August 2015

I've just finished reading Rohinton Mistry's epic novel set in India in the mid-1970s, 'A Fine Balance'. Written in 1995, the book shows us the horror of India's 'State of Internal Emergency' through the experiences of a group of ordinary people caught up in the madness. A prologue introduces us to the four main characters as they meet each other for the first time in 1975. The novel then fills in the back-story of each of these characters in turn, taking us to a variety of places and introducing a huge cast of families, friends and acquaintances. By focussing equally on four characters, Mistry refuses to make it clear which of them is the heart of his story. For the reader this creates a real sense of jeopardy as you realise there is no guarantee that any one of the four friends will necessarily survive to the end of the novel. The terrible journey that our protagonists take, being evicted from their homes, living on the streets, suffering police brutality, injury and disease, makes for a bleak tale. Their resolute cheerfulness and politeness in the face of such challenges makes them very likeable and sympathetic. Indeed, many of the beggars and slum-dwellers to whom they are generous and helpful, re-appear later to return the favour. This is a novel that loves chance-encounters, reuniting or overlapping its vast cast of characters, often after many years apart. 'A Fine Balance' has a Dickensian feel – both in its depiction of social conditions and in its distinct idiosyncratic characters – and is beautifully written. But ultimately it is a very grim story and I don't think it would be a spoiler to warn you not to expect a happy ending.



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