Tragedy in literature: ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry


Rohinton Mistry’s 1996 novel is prefaced with a quotation by Balzac:

Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me.  And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild flights of fancy.  But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction  All is true.’

At over 600 pages, there is a lot of tragedy packed into ‘A Fine Balance’.  It is set in India’s ‘State of International Emergency’ in the 1970s.  From caste violence to enforced sterilisation, from police brutality to the professional mutilation of beggars, Mistry presents a mosaic of human misery and torment.  Now I’m not a masochist (or a sadist) so these facts about the novel taken on their own would not encourage me to read or recommend it. What makes the story work as literature as well as historical record is the command the author holds over his material, structure and characterisation working together to weave a compelling narrative from a mass of unwieldy historical events.

The four main characters, a widow, a student and two struggling tailors, experience the confusion of the times in different ways, each desperately trying to keep hold of their independence, dignity and humanity.  Three of them are outsiders, new to the sprawling city that is the crucible for most of the novel’s main events.  Meanwhile the city-born Dina is a widow attempting to carve out her own independence; it soon becomes apparent that her place within the patriarchal and turbulent city is scarcely more secure than the newcomers’.  The characters bounce from crisis to crisis, their confusion echoed in the chaos around them:

“With the Emergency, everything is upside down  Black can be made white, day turned into night.  With the right influence and a little cash, sending people to jail is very easy.  There’s even a new law called MISA to simplify the whole procedure.”
“What’s MISA?”
“Maintenance of … something, and Security … something.  I’m not sure.”‘

If anything can temper the terrible facts depicted throughout, it’s Mistry’s wry and sensitive writing.  There is humour alongside the horror, and enough comforting hints at less traumatic forms of fiction (the picaresque and the great realist novels of the nineteenth century) to balance out the horror – pun fully intended.

I highly recommend ‘A Fine Balance.’  It has taught me about a new period of world history; it has introduced me to wonderful new characters.  It has also reminded me of how novels can be perfect vehicles for carrying important information about our past and our values.  What holds the book together is the hope and companionship found by characters in the unlikeliest places.  The story explores not only the depths of human behaviour, but also the power of friendship and openness.  It has fully earned its place in Anglo-Indian literature and is of enduring relevance today as we face our own ‘upside down’ world and future.

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13 Responses to Tragedy in literature: ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

  1. Pingback: Inspired by Diverse December: an A-Z of BAEM authors for 2016 | Shoshi's Book Blog

  2. I’ve read a lot of pre- and immediate-post independence Indian literature and history, as well as many popular modern novels. This is not an era I’ve looked into. I’ll add it to my list for some day–the mood will strike me eventually to read it.

  3. Sarah says:

    I read ‘A Fine Balance’ about ten years ago, and its power still reverberates even after all that time. Your thoughtful post does a wonderful and important book justice.

    • Thank you. It’s very hard to give an impression of such a long and complex book in a single post, and it’s lovely to hear I’ve succeeded in capturing some of what makes it so powerful. It wasn’t an easy read, but I suspect that, like you, I will be reflecting on what it taught me for many years to come.

  4. I’ve had a copy of this buried in the TBR forever. i’m seriously considering a book-buying ban for 2017 so hopefully this will get to the top of the pile soon!

    • It took me formalising my Diverse Reading A-Z to get this intimidatingly long novel into prime position on my reading list for 2016. I have a terrible suspicion that it would otherwise have had to wait for yet another year. I’m more of a fan of stupidly ambitious reading projects than buying bans though (on the basis that they’re more fun and slightly more achievable).

  5. Stefanie says:

    I’ve had this book on my radar for a while now but just haven’t gotten around to reading it. I forget about it until a fine review like yours comes along and makes me say, oh yeah! I want to read that! 🙂

  6. BookerTalk says:

    Like some of your other commenters I have had this on my TBR shelf for a few years – not sure why I haven’t picked it up yet but it is on my ‘read soon’ list now

    • Maybe you haven’t picked it up because it’s so big? I know that’s one thing that made me delay getting started. It’s why reading challenges are so good; I may have waited for yet another year if I hadn’t publicly put this on the list for 2017 – and I’m so pleased I did!

  7. Pingback: A magical introduction to the Mahabharata: ‘The Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (2008) | Shoshi's Book Blog

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