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A Fine Balance Paperback – November 30, 2001
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From Kirkus Reviews
From the Toronto-based Mistry (Such a Long Journey, 1991), a splendid tale of contemporary India that, in chronicling the sufferings of outcasts and innocents trying to survive in the ``State of Internal Emergency'' of the 1970s, grapples with the great question of how to live in the face of death and despair. Though Mistry is too fine a writer to indulge in polemics, this second novel is also a quietly passionate indictment of a corrupt and ineluctably cruel society. India under Indira Gandhi has become a country ruled by thugs who maim and kill for money and power. The four protagonists (all victims of the times) are: Dina, 40-ish, poor and widowed after only three years of marriage; Maneck, the son of an old school friend of Dina's; and two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, members of the Untouchable caste. For a few months, this unlikely quartet share a tranquil happiness in a nameless city--a city of squalid streets teeming with beggars, where politicians, in the name of progress, abuse the poor and the powerless. Dina, whose dreams of attending college ended when her father died, is now trying to support herself with seamstress work; Maneck, a tenderhearted boy, has been sent to college because the family business is failing; and the two tailors find work with Dina. Though the four survive encounters with various thugs and are saved from disaster by a quirky character known as the Beggarmaster, the times are not propitious for happiness. On a visit back home, Om and Ishvar are forcibly sterilized; Maneck, devastated by the murder of an activist classmate, goes abroad. But Dina and the tailors, who have learned ``to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,'' keep going. A sweeping story, in a thoroughly Indian setting, that combines Dickens's vivid sympathy for the poor with Solzhenitsyn's controlled outrage, celebrating both the resilience of the human spirit and the searing heartbreak of failed dreams. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
"Astonishing. . . . A rich and varied spectacle, full of wisdom and laughter and the touches of the unexpectedly familiar through which literature illuminates life." --Wall Street Journal
"A serious and important work . . . the product of high intelligence and passionate conviction." --New York Review of Books
"Monumental. . . . Few have caught the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India, the unaccountable crookedness and sweetness, as well as Mistry." --Pico Iyer, Time
"Those who continue to harp on the decline of the novel . . . ought to consider Rohinton Mistry. He needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is magical." --The New York Times
Top customer reviews
The characters each struggle with their own misfortunes. Dina Dalal, a financially strapped Parsi widow in her early 40's, struggles to preserve her independence, resisting the pleas of her brother to live off his charity. To make ends meet, Dina takes in a boarder, then recruits and hires two tailors to sew dresses for an export company. The boarder, Maneck, is the privileged son of a former school chum who has come to the city from his beloved mountain village for schooling. The Hindu tailors, Ishvar and Om, are refugees from caste violence. Ishvar, in his 40's, has dedicated his life to being a father to his nephew Om, the son of Ishvar's murdered brother. The tailors live from hand to mouth, entirely at the mercy of the social upheavals of the day.
The novel is set during the Emergency in the mid-1970s, a time when the Prime Minister suspends the constitution in order to hold on to power following a scandal. It is a period marked by political unrest and human rights violations, including widespread corruption, detention, horrendous injustices, torture and forced sterilization. Although Indira Gandhi is never named (she is simply referred to as the "prime minister"), she is an ominous presence. Under these circumstances, Dina's apartment becomes a sanctuary for the tailors. The four strangers start sharing their stories, then meals, then living space, until the apartment is transformed into a home for the four that is as close as family.
In addition to the four protagonists, the author introduces a series of marginal characters so vibrant they threaten to upstage everyone else: the legless beggar Shankar who gets around on a small wooden platform with wheels, the hair collector Rajaram, the beggarmaster, even an unnamed woman drying her only sari. A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in India.
A Fine Balance is a masterpiece—one of the best books I have ever read. It is a compelling read that transports you from one country to another. The author brings the sounds, colors, and images of his world to life. This is a very powerful book that draws you in, sweeps you along, and is over far too soon. It reminded me of the value of family and friendship. It is a book that is hauntingly beautiful; it will stir your emotions, highlighting the fine line that exists between hope and despair.