Book in Context:
This book kept me company one long weekend on the Seoul subway.
What a powerfully moving book. After a year of my life in India, this took me back to everything both the village life we shared for four months with the living hell of the caste system to my six months in the boiling cauldron of Calcutta. But it was even more vivid. There I was shut out of so much by culture and language. Mistry translated it all for me and made it even more real than living there myself.
I’ve had a love affair with India since I spent six months there when I was 18. I’ve read a huge amount about the country including novels, biographies, photo journals, travel writing and the social polemics of Gandhi and Nehru. Nothing I’ve read has evoked what India really is all about as well as Mistry has in this magnificent novel.
The book is so so moving on so many levels. It’s similar in a way to Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country in it’s eerie descriptions of the suffering of humanity. But whereas Cry has clearly divided lines of those who impose and receive suffering, A Fine Balance blurs those lines in ways which make it that much more poignant. Heroes become villains. Villains become heroes. Humanity is revealed as it truly is: a seething mass of mixed motives, uncertainty and confusion seen through the eyes of prejudice and presupposition.
As each of the characters is introduced, Mistry takes you on a journey through your own prejudices and reveals how easily we find it to judge each other without knowing the full story. While the government and authorities imposing Indira Gandhi’s regime take the blame on the surface, ostensibly each character is revealed as a victim, ultimately, of fate. As Valmik, the attorney explains near the end of the novel, “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.”
Now here we see the karmic philosophy permeating the novel, possibly combined with nihilism, which reduces the precious hopes of the characters Mistry helps us befriend to little more than worthless by the end of the novel. While Mistry’s novel is a brilliant medium for his philosophy, I simply don’t believe it to be true. If our lives are simply “a sequence of accidents” there is no way that anyone could call the misfortunes that befall the characters as in any way tragic. Tragedy is only revealed against a background of worth. If our actions, hopes and achievements are entirely accidental our suffering and death are concomitantly worthy of as much sorrow as flushed excrement.
So, the novel is not only a brilliant portrayal of the physical and social environment of Indian life, it also has the same deep undercurrent of fatalistic philosophy that enables this suffering to remain unchallenged in Indian society to this day.
The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed.
Then she dried her hands and decided to take a nap before starting the evening meal.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good> excellent > superb