Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
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it was amazing

“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.’ ”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry very well may have written a masterpiece. This was recommended to me as a 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!

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Reading Progress

June 5, 2014 – Shelved
June 5, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
June 16, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 115 (115 new)


message 1: by Kalliope (new) - added it

Kalliope Superb, and I loved that first photo.


B the BookAddict A very well considered review, JK.


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "Superb, and I loved that first photo."

Thanks Kalliope! I wasn't even looking for that photo when I found it, but a light bulb went off in my head. Ahh hah the photo above the fold.


message 4: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue Oh yes! Jeffrey you have captured it.


message 5: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue Oh yes! Jeffrey you have captured it.


Jeffrey Keeten Bette BookAddict wrote: "A very well considered review, JK."

Thanks Bette! It was a lot of book to process.


Jeffrey Keeten Sue wrote: "Oh yes! Jeffrey you have captured it."

Ahh vindication! from a reader who has read it. Thank you Sue! This is a BIG picture book with an arc of essential points that simply could not all be captured in a review. I was hoping I'd caught enough essential parts to make it work. Thanks Sue!


message 8: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue Oh you did indeed catch the salient points of this important novel, Jeffrey. And now perhaps many of your followers will give this book a try.


message 9: by Jonfaith (new) - added it

Jonfaith Fascinating, I may devote July to Mistry.


Mmars It's been a good number of years since I read this, but everything is still vivid in my mind. Reading your review it felt like I just finished it days ago. I think this is one of the 20th century's masterpieces.


Arah-Lynda Congratulations Jeffrey you have nailed the very essence of this, dare I say perfect book.

It reminds me of my daughter asking me a number of years back what my favourite book was and I replied with probably A Fine Balance.

Oh but there are so many books. For example I just finished Lonesome Dove, a book I would not have even contemplated during that long ago conversation with my daughter.

And what about you sir? What pray tell is your favourite book?


Caroline Excellent review. I read this several years ago but it sticks in my mind even now as standing out above many many others. These characters become something like real people you actually know over the course of the novel. I’ve read that Mistry is on course for the Nobel, and it would be well deserved.


message 13: by Jareed (new) - added it

Jareed Excellent review Jeffrey! I'm adding this up!


message 14: by Diane (new)

Diane Barnes You did a fine job with this one, I'm tempted to re-read it when I get to that time and place with enough leisure to read all my favorites again. Until then I'll just make do with your reviews. The picture of Mistry surprised me, I had assumed he was a much older man.
My favorite book is, hands down, "To Kill a Mockingbird". I'd be very surprised if it's one you haven't read yet.


message 15: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol Outstanding Jeffrey! I own a copy of this novel and regret passing it over after reading your fine review.


message 16: by Caroline (last edited Jun 17, 2014 10:25PM) (new)

Caroline An absolutely brilliant review. So glad to have had the opportunity to learn something about this excellent-sounding book.

Like you, I cannot get over the unearned gifts in my life - all the result of the happen-stance of being born into a family and country of relative wealth and ease.


Dolors Each book fulfills a temporary need but there are a few that go beyond a mere "reading experience" and that leave permanent track on people, books that urge to act, books that can change things triggering real happenings. I guess this is one of those books and this review sings its value from start to end. Superlative writing Jeffrey. I am tempted to mention Vikram Seth's "A constant music", but I will stick to "Sophie's Choice" for the time being as I am still sufring the wave of Styron's beauty and horror. What an apt (and humbling) suggestion to consummate what I think is one of your best reviews, my friend.


Always Pink A very important book that shows how the not so fortunate have to scrape a living while or because we live in luxury. I hope your enthusiastic review will make a lot more people read it.


message 19: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala I loved your opening paragraphs, Jeffrey - the difficulties involved in maintaining that fine balance in our own lives are indeed relative but yet, we all have to keep ourselves from rolling off that slippery ball.

After reading Mistry's Family Matters, I probably would have maintained it was my favourite reading experience if anyone had asked. That was quite a while ago though and other more recently read books come to mind when you asked the question. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is top of the list at the moment.


Garima Splendid review, Jeffrey. Apart from this book, Infinite Jest is another favorite of mine ;)


Michael A moving review finely balanced between despair and hope. I was impressed how the odd collection of people thrown together like a coalition government come to form something akin to a family. Right you make me feel A Fine Balance is my favorite Mistry, but other times an aversion to his use of a nameless city makes me favor specificity of place and time in Such a Long Journey and Family Matters.


message 22: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus This book dragged me through knotholes in a splintery pine fence at least twice a chapter. Agree with your high recommendation, because I am a Mean Old Man.


message 23: by Praj (new) - rated it 4 stars

Praj Spectacular piece of writing!!


Jeffrey Keeten Jonfaith wrote: "Fascinating, I may devote July to Mistry."

Thanks Jonfaith! I look forward to your thoughts on Mistry through the month of July.


Jeffrey Keeten Mmars wrote: "It's been a good number of years since I read this, but everything is still vivid in my mind. Reading your review it felt like I just finished it days ago. I think this is one of the 20th century's..."

I'm so glad I brought back book memories for you Mmars. Part of the way I write these reviews is to jog the memory of a much older JK. I hope this review will provide me with the same experience ten years from now. Thanks Mmars!


Jeffrey Keeten Arah-Lynda wrote: "Congratulations Jeffrey you have nailed the very essence of this, dare I say perfect book.

It reminds me of my daughter asking me a number of years back what my favourite book was and I replied w..."


It is always difficult to say what my favorite book is. I usually say the one I'm reading now. :-) The book that really felt like the author was talking to me was The Sportswriter. I've been meaning to reread it because I don't totally trust my younger self. The problem of course is the chance of taking the glow off a reading experience by discovering that the book wasn't what you remembered.

Speaking of Lonesome Dove. I had a chance to meet Larry McMurtry a couple of different times, but I remember a Lonesome Dove signing the best because he offered to buy some earlier books of his that I had brought with me. I said to him "why don't you sign them first and then we can negotiate price?" He laughed. He did make me a good offer, but I decided to hang onto them. Only time I've ever had an author try to buy his own books from me. Larry was a BIG book collector.


Jeffrey Keeten Caroline wrote: "Excellent review. I read this several years ago but it sticks in my mind even now as standing out above many many others. These characters become something like real people you actually know over..."

I fully expect Mistry to win the Nobel. His writing is assured. He is willing to take on big issues. He will be well deserving if and when the award is finally his. Thanks Caroline! I expect to be thinking about these characters for a long time. If they ever start to fade then it will be time to pull the book from the shelf again to reacquaint myself with Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om.


Jeffrey Keeten Jareed wrote: "Excellent review Jeffrey! I'm adding this up!"

I'm so glad you want to read this Jareed. I'll be looking forward to reading your review. Your reviews just seem to get better and better. Thanks Jareed!


Jeffrey Keeten Caroline wrote: "An absolutely brilliant review. So glad to have had the opportunity to learn something about this excellent-sounding book.

Like you, I cannot get over the unearned gifts in my life - all the res..."


Maybe it is just the human condition to be worried. I think about what I'm worried about on a given day and those worries are easier to shake off after reading this book. I think we all need a reminder from time to time that as hard as life gets our needs are always met. Thanks Caroline!


Jeffrey Keeten Dolors wrote: "Each book fulfills a temporary need but there are a few that go beyond a mere "reading experience" and that leave permanent track on people, books that urge to act, books that can change things tri..."

I'm going to put both books you mentioned on my list. Books should leave impressions on us, some consume us, and leave us changed people. Now that I've found Mistry my feeling is that he isn't finished with me. He gave me perspective of my own travails and what I should be focused on. Any time when I feel like the world is picking on me I can hopefully remember what is most important. One of those being the wonderful, supportive friends I've made on GR. Thanks Dolors!


Jeffrey Keeten Always Pink wrote: "A very important book that shows how the not so fortunate have to scrape a living while or because we live in luxury. I hope your enthusiastic review will make a lot more people read it."

If I convince even one person to read this book, the time I put into writing this review will be more than repaid. Thanks Always Pink!


Jeffrey Keeten Diane wrote: "You did a fine job with this one, I'm tempted to re-read it when I get to that time and place with enough leisure to read all my favorites again. Until then I'll just make do with your reviews. T..."

I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, twice and loved it time. A wonderful book and a wonderful movie as well. Thanks Diane! It is always hard to go over ground already covered with so many new adventures waiting for us.


Jeffrey Keeten Carol wrote: "Outstanding Jeffrey! I own a copy of this novel and regret passing it over after reading your fine review."

Thank you Carol! Well the first hurdle has been cleared. You own a copy! Yeah! I do hope you get time to read this book. It was certainly a book I had difficult putting down each night...drooping eyelids always win!


Jeffrey Keeten Fionnuala wrote: "I loved your opening paragraphs, Jeffrey - the difficulties involved in maintaining that fine balance in our own lives are indeed relative but yet, we all have to keep ourselves from rolling off th..."

I tried rewriting those opening paragraphs, but I ended up scrubbing all my attempts to "improve" them. I had to just leave them the way they came out of my head the first time. I'm so glad you enjoyed them Fionnuala! I've put both your recommends on the list. I enjoyed A Sentimental Journeybut it has been decades since I read it. Thank you for the recommends and your kind words!


Jeffrey Keeten Garima wrote: "Splendid review, Jeffrey. Apart from this book, Infinite Jest is another favorite of mine ;)"

Infinite Jest goes on the list. Thank you Garima! Your review of this book was truly inspiring. I was so proud of the likes and responses you received for that review. Truly a wonderful addition to the best reviews of GR.


Jeffrey Keeten Michael wrote: "A moving review finely balanced between despair and hope. I was impressed how the odd collection of people thrown together like a coalition government come to form something akin to a family. Rig..."

I thought it was a point of interest when I realized he wasn't going to specify the city. He could avoid the restraints of an existing cities geography, but I agree there is always that extra element to a novel that puts existing bars, cross streets, coffee shops and restaurants into the plot of the book. I didn't really think about it again until your comments so I must have shuffled it to the back of the card deck.

I think the collection of the unusual family unit was fascinating to watch as they discovered how to live communally. It was a balance, but the elephant only stayed on the ball for a short time. Thanks Michael! Your suggestions are on my list.


Jeffrey Keeten Richard Reviles Censorship wrote: "This book dragged me through knotholes in a splintery pine fence at least twice a chapter. Agree with your high recommendation, because I am a Mean Old Man."

Despite all the emotionally draining parts of this novel the fact that Mistry was able to infuse some moments of happiness made it somehow more devastating when the final circumstances of the characters are revealed. I didn't know you were officially a Mean Old Man. :-) I think that designation is still up for debate. Thanks Richard! I hope your troll issues have been resolved. One sometimes needs a large cudgel.


Jeffrey Keeten Praj wrote: "Spectacular piece of writing!!"

Thank you Praj! I'm so glad you enjoy it!


message 39: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Jeffrey wrote: "Thanks Richard! I hope your troll issues have been resolved. One sometimes needs a large cudgel."

Silence is golden. Can I get a sharp-bladed cudgel?


Jeffrey Keeten Richard Reviles Censorship wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Thanks Richard! I hope your troll issues have been resolved. One sometimes needs a large cudgel."

Silence is golden. Can I get a sharp-bladed cudgel?"


This is America after all. Anything you can think of as far as a weapon is concerned exists. :-) You might need to raid a Dungeons and Dragons basement.


message 41: by David (new) - added it

David S. Absolutely amazing review, Jeffrey!

I remember starting this book a while back, but got sidetracked and never came back to it. I'm in the middle of reading "Empire Falls" (Russo) and really liking it. But, I've put Mistry's book back near the top of my To Read List.

I, recently, finished DFW's "Infinite Jest". Might not be my all time fav....or maybe it is! Ya it's that good!


Jeffrey Keeten David wrote: "Absolutely amazing review, Jeffrey!

I remember starting this book a while back, but got sidetracked and never came back to it. I'm in the middle of reading "Empire Falls" (Russo) and really likin..."


I like Russo and need to read something by him again soon. I've liked everything I've read by him. I've been eyeing Infinite Jest ever since it came out. The book that makes digital versions make sense. It saves the wrists. :-) Thanks David I'm so glad you enjoyed the review and hope you get a chance to get back to Mistry.


message 43: by Aaron (new) - added it

Aaron Wolfson One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is conspicuously absent from your massive library! ;)


Jeffrey Keeten Aaron wrote: "One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is conspicuously absent from your massive library! ;)"

That is a great one Aaron. I haven't read it, but I do have a copy. It is on the list. Thanks!


Arah-Lynda Jeffrey wrote: "Arah-Lynda wrote: "Congratulations Jeffrey you have nailed the very essence of this, dare I say perfect book.

It reminds me of my daughter asking me a number of years back what my favourite book ..."


An opportunity to meet Larry McMurtry and a signed copy of Lonesome Dove..............priceless. I know what you mean about the book you are currently reading being your favourite. it is such a tough question because even when you think you may know the answer, your next book may well change it. Still I love hearing what others have to say.


Jeffrey Keeten Arah-Lynda wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Arah-Lynda wrote: "Congratulations Jeffrey you have nailed the very essence of this, dare I say perfect book.

It reminds me of my daughter asking me a number of years back what my..."


The suggestions have been fantastic so far. I hope to get more.

Larry had a thing going with Leslie Marmon Silko and she lived in Tucson. I was going to the University of Arizona at the time, so it was nice getting a chance to see him. He probably did book signings so he could write off his visits to see Leslie. :-)


message 47: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice I love the review, Jeffrey, but I swear I had PTSD after reading this book. For a long time I couldn't conceive of reading another one by the author, but I'm glad to say one is residing in my stack right now.


Jeffrey Keeten Jan wrote: "I love the review, Jeffrey, but I swear I had PTSD after reading this book. For a long time I couldn't conceive of reading another one by the author, but I'm glad to say one is residing in my stac..."

Awesome! Thank you Jan! So which one of his books is in your reading stack? If you don't mind me asking. :-)


message 49: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Such a Long Journey. Goodreads readers were encouraging me, and then I read an article in a magazine that made me see there was something I needed to learn from it. About Bangladesh, if I remember right. I'll find out when I get to it!


Jeffrey Keeten Jan wrote: "Such a Long Journey. Goodreads readers were encouraging me, and then I read an article in a magazine that made me see there was something I needed to learn from it. About Bangladesh,..."

One of the episodes of Years of Living Dangerously on Showtime focused on Bangladesh. The whole country is so close to sea level that any rise in the ocean and most of their country is gone. They have 161 million people living in a geography the size of Iowa. We have around 300 million people in the whole USA.


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