Gautam's Reviews > A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, indian-lit


A man with paralyzed legs lies on his itchy straw bed, staring at the murky ceiling that seems closing in on him, as his eyes have been fixating it for too long. The time seems reluctant to move on as there is no sign of movements around him; the world seems to have divorced him. His room has no windows that rewarded him with a view of a green patch or a shimmering rivulet to vouch for his existence. The life, as it seems, has no prospect, he thought. As the bleak moments ostensibly passed, he, to his surprise, spots a fly out of nowhere inching towards him. The sound of its vicious flutter of wings and its dull black mass has a portentous import, and, gazing at it, he gulps lumps of fear down his damp throat. As the fluttering, buzzing sound reaches an unacceptable proximity, he waves his arm, almost mechanically, in one vigorous movement, as though terrified by the ominous propinquity, and the fly, as though mocking at his frantic attempts at dissuasion, retreats a short distance only to come back as tenacious as ever. As the moments trudged past lazily, the buzzing sound now seems to be derisive laughter. The unflinching tenacity of the fly begins outriding his remnant resolve. He feels subjugated to the mettlesome fly. He feels subdued. His arms, after repeated waving and sweeping, protested to move further. He truncates his efforts. Despair. He, like a hapless docile creature, accepts the defeat and the fly, with its flourish of invisible wings and triumphant buzzing, licked his skin as though making him know, out of pure derision, the tangibility of misery, failure, and cul-de-sac.

I used ‘the man’ here as a metaphor for the poverty-stricken Indians during emergency, with their independence and free-will paralyzed by the whimsical government and its greed for power, making them glued to their hapless lives. The Fly of misery, which came almost always out of nowhere, kissed them mockingly, conquered them, and pushed them into dark abysses of lugubriousness, but only before they had put up a futile fight for stalling time prior to complete subjugation.

And in the end, as Maneck Kohlah said, everything ended badly.

A few words on Emergency:

Inorder to curb ‘internal disturbances’ and to smooth out the threatening, revolutionary waves prevalent throughout the country ostensibly, Indira Gandhi government, on 25th June 1975 , enforced ‘State of Emergency’, which spanned over 21 months that brought endless misery and impoverishment on the Indian landscape. The fine balance that precariously maintained the social and cultural equilibrium had been mutilated causing uproarious fiascos. The gory period is still in an indelible mark as an epoch of calamity, instability and madness.

A few words on caste system:

To say in a few words, due to lack of time and space, the caste system in India has been like a series of concentric circles : the outermost circle being the most dominant class enjoyed unequivocal prerogatives, and the innermost circle being the socially oppressed and untouchables enjoyed almost nothing. Though the caste system looks antiquated and draconian, it has been prevalent since time immemorial and is a by-product of years of cultural evolution.

Main Review:

First of all, let me start by saying that Mistry is a prolific writer. He concentrates on the substance and soul rather than the adornment of prose or metaphorical-diarrhea. That said, his prose is unvarnished, earthy and palpable. The story of four protagonists in the novel looks like an arbitrary selection, as if the author had been in a pursuit of finding a constant for the ever-befuddling equation of misery and despair among the common-place Indians during emergency. The novel, as you read it, creates an impression that the story involving the four main protagonists is only a part of a very big story, or collection of stories, that is impossible to contain in a mere novel.

“I think that our sight, smell, taste touch, hearing are all calibrated for the enjoyment of a perfect world. But since the world is imperfect, we must put blinders on the senses.

Dina Dalal, a hapless victim of a brutal quirk-of-fate, was deprived of her married life, which was cut off at an inchoate juncture. Being a widow, her chance for an independent survival was bleak, but a second marriage was impossible even to think of. She had no one but her brother as a sole living-recourse. The absurd notions such as women are weak without the sturdy shoulder of men to lean on have been prevalent among the Indian families, where women are merely considered as ‘production units’. Her brother too was no different; as soon as his sister became a widow, he started thinking of her matrimonial prospects and began inviting his affluent friends to home who didn’t seem to care about her second marriage. He simply couldn’t imagine or believe a woman could thrive independently without the ‘intrusion’ of a male presence. Epitomizing the virtues of boldness and optimism, and yearning to extricate herself from the sanctimonious, smothering clutches of her brother, she decided to earn for a living, she decided to sew.

“Independence comes at a high price: debt with a payment schedule of hurt and regret.”

The entry of the tailors, Ishvar and Om, and her new paying-guest, Maneck, unveiled new vistas in her life that had been plunging into the deep recesses of solitude. The room that was once filled with distorted, aimless noises of neighbor’s chores was now being filled with sounds of bustling life and laughter. Her new life, now devoid of forlorn air and solitude, instilled a new found hope and joy in her. The tailoring machines became the beating-heart of her house, and the blood of joy and stability surged through every vein of her abode and being. Presence of another living entity is indeed the most delectable thing after a dry spell of solitude and the accompanying pessimism. The tailors, on the other hand, after their small hut in a slum settlement had been destroyed as a part of Government’s new program of ‘beautification’, sought refuge in Dina’s flat and made themselves home swiftly.

“In the WC, the tailors’ urine smell that used to flutter like a flag in the air, and in Dina’s nose, grew unnoticeable. Then it struck her: the scent was unobtrusive now because it was the same for everyone. They were all eating the same food, drinking the same water. Sailing under the same flag.”

Ishvar and his nephew Om, due to harrowing poverty, came to the city by the sea to earn a fortune. They were skilled tailors, but their heart and soul were anointed with the indelible ashes of their lugubrious past, making them flustered and tentative. The timeless memories of their lost family, who were burnt alive by the diabolic upper-caste, were now the only green patch in the dry fields of their life. They wanted money to go back again to their village, to fixate their existence in their childhood abode, which now existed only as a mere dreamscape.

“If time were a bolt of cloth, I would cut out all the bad parts. Snip out the scary nights and stitch together the good parts, to make time bearable. Then I could wear it like a coat, always live happily.” - Omprakash

Maneck Kohlah, an apparently rich boy from the mountains, came to the city by the sea under the coercion of his parents who wanted him to go to college and get a job. The concomitant effects of emergency even threatened the serene mountains, as the family land and properties were swallowed by the inscrutable partitions, as the mountains were being destructed for the construction of roads and settlements, obviating their positivity and secureness. He broodingly meditated upon the harrowing events and changes that constantly challenged his equilibrium.

“Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated- not with the same joy. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain. So what was the point of possessing memory?”- Maneck Kohlah

Everything in the world is transient; things are bound to change without prior notice. Embracing change becomes an obligation as long as we endure life. The lives of four people, from a blissful spell of optimism and joy, plunge into another phase of dreadful import. The unexpected turn of fate waylaid them and extorted from them the tiny bags of their cumulated happiness. Not every story has a happy ending.

“I prefer to think that 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.”- Maneck Kohlah

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The story moves in a steady, uniform pace, without slackening or accelerating even for a second, which imparts a naturality, a life-like experience as you immerse into it. And the expanse of novel is scattered with numerous gems of nostalgia-inducing details that makes you inadvertently smile. For instance:

“Rain had fallen during the night. The ground was soft, the mud sucking at their feet like a many-mouthed creature.”


Mistry never left anything. In this 600 pages book, the life and culture of India has been jotted down with a heart that beats along with the words. Being an Indian, Mistry had been able to empathize inordinately with the characters and accurately describe the singular environment that encapsulated the lives of the characters. As the reading has been so life-like, I was immersed into the story, camouflaging my identity to the background of the 70s India, where I was one among them- the toiling, sweating proletarians; perplexed moms with hungry little mouths to feed; youths with despoiled ambitions and sprouted political inclinations; beggars and beggar- masters; Ishvar and Om and Maneck and Dina Dalal.

“What an unreliable thing is time- when I want to fly, the hours stick to me like a glue. And what 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.”

5 stars on 5!

-gautam
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Reading Progress

January 1, 2015 – Shelved
January 1, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
October 19, 2015 – Started Reading
October 25, 2015 –
page 200
32.57%
October 25, 2015 –
page 200
32.57%
October 25, 2015 –
page 200
32.57%
October 25, 2015 –
page 200
32.57%
October 25, 2015 –
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32.57%
October 25, 2015 –
page 200
32.57%
October 25, 2015 –
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32.57%
November 5, 2015 –
page 515
83.88%
November 6, 2015 –
page 614
100.0%
November 9, 2015 – Shelved as: favorites
November 9, 2015 – Shelved as: indian-lit
November 9, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-44 of 44 (44 new)

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Aditya Jain Beautifully stated...even I loved this book...


message 2: by Seemita (new) - added it

Seemita That opening paragraph stood tall with its head seeing both good and bad, almost waving a condescending hand to all the syrupy pictures that hovered like some temporary rainbow film on the surface of a filthy lake during those painful days of emergency. You draw a heart-tugging picture, Gautam... I read it twice. I am aware of Mistry's unvarnished prose, a soulful rendition that leaves the eyes, wet and the skin, numb. I have to read this one soon, very soon.


message 3: by Dolors (last edited Nov 09, 2015 07:40AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dolors You combine informative snippets with sensitive pondering about the historical epic that introduced me to Mistry's compassionate writing, Gautam. What a pleasure it's been to walk in the bleak alleys of the ostracized characters that paint the history of Modern day India through your words. This insightful review is also a great reminder of my need to explore more works by this author. Thanks Gautam!


message 4: by Alejandro (new)

Alejandro Great work on the review, Gautam.


message 5: by Cheryl (new) - added it

Cheryl What a thorough and educational review, Gautam. You've delved beyond the writer and story to uncover meaning, layers, and symbolism. Great review.


Gautam Aditya wrote: "Beautifully stated...even I loved this book..."

Thanks a lot for reading my review, Aditya :)


Gautam Seemita wrote: "That opening paragraph stood tall with its head seeing both good and bad, almost waving a condescending hand to all the syrupy pictures that hovered like some temporary rainbow film on the surface ..."

Thank you, Seemita, for your ardent response. Yes, this novel is so poignant that you gradually start melting into the prose. I am eager to know your take on this book. Thanks again for reading and appreciating my review. :)


Gautam Dolors wrote: "You combine informative snippets with sensitive pondering about the historical epic that introduced me to Mistry's compassionate writing, Gautam. What a pleasure it's been to walk in the bleak alle..."

You are absolutely right , Dolors. Mistry is such a down-to-earth writer and he writes with his heart. Thank you for your beaming response which is always impregnated with ardent encouragement. Thanks again for reading my review. :)


Gautam Alejandro wrote: "Great work on the review, Gautam."

Thanks a lot for the great response, Alejandro ! :)


Gautam Cheryl wrote: "What a thorough and educational review, Gautam. You've delved beyond the writer and story to uncover meaning, layers, and symbolism. Great review."

Thank you so much for your kind words, Cheryl ! I give credit to Mistry and his superlative writing if this review reached upto your expectation. Thanks again for your kind and beaming comment, Cheryl!


message 11: by Pramod (new)

Pramod Nair An excellent review covering a lot of angles, Gautam. Really enjoyed reading...


message 12: by Sumati (new) - added it

Sumati excellent!


message 13: by Connie (new) - added it

Connie G I enjoyed reading your review, Gautam. It sounds like a fascinating book.


message 14: by Agnieszka (new) - added it

Agnieszka Great review , Gautam ! Hope to read that one soon .


message 15: by Pankaj (new)

Pankaj Giri beautiful review.. the quotes and snippets were fantastic :)


Gautam Pramod wrote: "An excellent review covering a lot of angles, Gautam. Really enjoyed reading..."

Thanks a lot for the kind words, Pramod! :)


Gautam Sumati wrote: "excellent!"

Thanks a lot for reading and commenting, Sumati! :)


Gautam Connie wrote: "I enjoyed reading your review, Gautam. It sounds like a fascinating book."

It is indeed a fascinating novel, Connie! I recommend it. Thanks a lot for your kind words! :)


Gautam Agnieszka wrote: "Great review , Gautam ! Hope to read that one soon ."

Thanks a lot for reading my review, Agniezka!
Yes, I recommend it! :)


Gautam Pankaj wrote: "beautiful review.. the quotes and snippets were fantastic :)"

I am glad my review piqued your interest, Pankaj! :)


message 21: by Pankaj (new)

Pankaj Giri It certainly did, Gautam.. Both your and the author's prose are equally stylish and ornamental. You should contemplate writing a novel yourself. Advice from a debut author :)


Gautam Thank you for making my day a blissful one with your sincere exhortation, Pankaj! Yes, I am contemplating writing a possible novel, but it is still in a rudimentary stage. I am currently allowing my mind a flow to nurture my concepts and threads. Your advice is embedded in my mind now. Thanks :)


message 23: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Gautam, thanks for filling in the historical context of 'A Fine Balance' - I was only vaguely aware of it when I read the book.
Thanks also for allowing me to revisit the lives of these four very memorable characters - it's quite a few years since I read it but certain scenes have remained fixed in my mind - that's the permanence of powerful memories, Mistry would say - or was that Maneck...


S.Ach Brilliant Review, Gautam.
I still remember the lingering effect this book had on me when I first read it.


message 25: by Pankaj (new)

Pankaj Giri All the very best Gautam. If you would like a light read, please try my book Friendship love and killer escapades. Thanks. :)


Gautam Fionnuala wrote: "Gautam, thanks for filling in the historical context of 'A Fine Balance' - I was only vaguely aware of it when I read the book.
Thanks also for allowing me to revisit the lives of these four very m..."


Thank you for reading my review, Fio! Due to lack of time and space, I couldnt wholly describe the historical aspects. I suggest you browse for 'state of emergency' for complete information. But I hope I was able to contain the main points. :)


Gautam Sujeet wrote: "Brilliant Review, Gautam.
I still remember the lingering effect this book had on me when I first read it."


Thanks a lot sujeet for your beaming comment! The effect of the novel is hovering around my mind too. :) I am glad you loved the novel.


Gautam Pankaj wrote: "All the very best Gautam. If you would like a light read, please try my book Friendship love and killer escapades. Thanks. :)"

I have duly noted your recommendation, Pankaj! :) thanks again.


message 29: by Steven (new) - added it

Steven Walle What an awesome review my friend!


Gautam Diamond wrote: "What an awesome review my friend!"

Thanks a lot for your comment, Diamond! I am glad you liked it :)


message 31: by Parthiban (new) - added it

Parthiban Sekar What a wonderful, eloquent, and fine- balanced review, Gautam... Way to go!


Gautam A beaming face welcomes your lavish praise, Parthi! :) Thanks.


message 33: by Jaidee (last edited Nov 11, 2015 07:48PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jaidee I love your love for this book Gautam.

I wish my experience of this was the same as yours :(

Congratulations on an excellent review.


Gautam Jaidee wrote: "I love your love for this book Gautam.

I wish my experience of this was the same as yours :(

Congratulations on an excellent review."


Thanks a lot for your wonderful comment, Jaidee! This book has been a delightful one.
I am sure you will love it next time when you re-read it! Thanks again! :)


message 35: by Mohan (new)

Mohan Babu What a brilliant,amazing review, Gautam. Very well enjoyed it.


Gautam Thanks a lot for reading and appreciating my review! :)


Himanshu Ecstatic to see those 5 stars and equally so to read such a profusely heartfelt review of one of my very favorites, Gautam. This one was my first Mistry and is as if etched permanently in my mind. It never fails to bring in the feeling of nostalgia whenever I think of this book and the impact it had on me. That brilliant opening paragraph was both disturbing and affirming to read. Brilliantly done my friend.


message 38: by Gautam (last edited Nov 17, 2015 01:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gautam Himanshu wrote: "Ecstatic to see those 5 stars and equally so to read such a profusely heartfelt review of one of my very favorites, Gautam. This one was my first Mistry and is as if etched permanently in my mind. ..."

Thanks a lot for your kind,beaming comment, Himanshu! This novel has etched an indelible impression in my heart too. And you are spot-on regarding the element of nostalgia since the nostalgic prose has mesmerized me too inordinately. Thanks again for your effusive exhortations, Himanshu! :)


message 39: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol A fascinating and articulate review of a novel that I've planned to read for some time now. I'll have to move it up in my queue.


Gautam Carol wrote: "A fascinating and articulate review of a novel that I've planned to read for some time now. I'll have to move it up in my queue."


I am glad my review prodded you to reconsider your reading queue. This is a very earthy,poignant novel that I have no doubt you will cherish.Thanks a lot for reading my review and dropping in warm,kind words Carol.:)


message 41: by Jishnu (new)

Jishnu Babu Absolutely stunning review, Gautam ! Loved it...


Gautam Jishnu wrote: "Absolutely stunning review, Gautam ! Loved it..."

Thanks a lot for your kind words :) I'm glad you liked my review, Jishnu :)


Linda An excellent review Gautam of an amazingly real book. I cannot come close to this review. It is a fitting review for this bitterly sad reality of a novel.


Gautam Linda wrote: "An excellent review Gautam of an amazingly real book. I cannot come close to this review. It is a fitting review for this bitterly sad reality of a novel."

This is one my oldest reviews, Linda. :) Thank you for making me revisit this harrowing yet realistic tale through truly kind words.
I am glad you loved this book. Cheers!


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