Monday, July 16, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Rohinton Mistry

Title: A Fine Balance
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Mistry, an Indian-born Canadian writer, has won a lot of literature's big prizes in his career: Neustadt, James Tait Black, Booker shortlist, etc.  It's the sort of resume that suggests he's likely to win the Nobel one day.   A Fine Balance, published in 1995, was his third book, second novel.

A Fine Balance covers a long, dramatic sweep of Indian history:  1947-1984, Independence to the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination.  The story follows four characters: Dina Dalal, a 42-year-old widow born of a wealthy urban family but determined to make it on her own after her husband's death; Ishvar and Om Darji, two tailors from the countryside, their lives torn apart by inter-caste violence and Maneck Kohlah, student and son of a grocer in the far off mountains.  The four live together in Dina's apartment.  Their relationships initially fraught with tension, they eventually form a strong familial bond. 

The heart of the tale takes place in 1975-76 during Gandhi's Emergency.  In a society built on centuries-old social injustice (aren't they all?), the crackdowns on the poor are especially brutal during this time.  The tailors always manage to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Easy as it is to roll one's American, Caucasian eyes and think, "Oh boy, India...", it's not much of a stretch to imagine an African-American or Native American or Latino-American or most any other minority family in the United States feeling they have also been victims of history for generations on end.

Mistry's acclaim is well-deserved.  The text is elegant without overwhelming in detail.  Few characters truly disappear in the story, nearly every chance encounter coming around full-circle to play a meaningful role later in the narrative.  The symbolism can be a bit heavy-handed, especially with a quilt Dina produces. The fine balance of the title is between hope and despair.  Most of the narrative weighs to the despair side but the moments of hope are genuinely touching.  The ending is rotten and unnecessarily so.  Dazzlingly artful through nearly 600 pages, Mistry resorts to the worst of all narrative cop-outs just before the final curtain. 


  1. I hate when a great book fumbles the ending.

  2. That sounds terrible. I mean, it sounds like it was really good until the end, which may not make it worth it.

    1. It is still really good but the ending definitely left me feeling cheated a little.