Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Fine Balance - Book Review

Just finished A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. 

Paul & Sally Corwin gave this book to me on my last trip the Southern Alps, and it was in the afternoon as we were about to catch the bus on the Alpine Highway back to Christchurch, Paul said to me, Here, Ning, this is a book for you. It is a fantastic book, but be it will depress you like hell. (or something along the lines of that) So don't read it when you are already depressed, he joked and gave it to me.

I started reading it about four days ago and I crashed through it wanting to make the most of it. 

This book is about a number of characters in the era in India after Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister called a national Emergency, bring the nation to a screeching halt resulting in chaos and revolution. These characters are from the lower rungs of society, with no say in how the politics took over every aspect of their lives. 

The book is depressing - very much so - but also has very funny and lighthearted moments in it. It is very different from Arundhati Roy or Kiran Desai – in God of Small Things, you had the foreboding sense that things were going to go terribly wrong for the characters. In Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss (the name gives it away, really) there is a sense of melancholy and beautiful grimness to how the story is told and unfold. With A Fine Balance, there is no such mood. The novel reads objectively and to the point. Rohinton Mistry's sentences are apt, non-floral and black & white. In doing so, the characters come to life in a believable way. You begin to recognise them and they take root in your mind. So much so that I found myself outside my reading time, wondering what would come of them, and whether they would live through tragedies or succumb to them – along with the thousands and thousands of beggars, middle-class citizens, mussalman's, hindu's and sikh's that were murdered by scores during that time in India's history. 

The phrase 'a fine balance' comes from a conversation Maneck (one of the characters) has with a stranger in the train who insists to him that life is a fine balance of hope and despair and one has to live in an awareness of both realities to make the most of life. To me, the novel proves that life does hang on a very fine line. Almost sitting on a tip of a sharp knife - stray but a little to the sides and everything would come crashing down. (That last line comes from Tolkien.) One day the characters were the happiest people on earth, making chapatis and cooking on the verandah enjoying the evening sun and the next they are homeless, sleeping on the streets, their lives under threat from police thugs. One day the family is in tact and plans for celebration are on the way, the next day, they lie half dead on the town square.

In the epigraph, Mistry quotes Honeore de Balzac in Le Pere Goriot:
“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 exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.” 

That sums it all up. This is a true story. Not just for a few people. But for everyone. It seems like Mistry is alluding to the greater fact that no matter how rich one is or how secure one is, life does hang on a fine balance. If life is at the lowest ebb, one is closer to hope that he/she will even realize. If life is at a mountain-peak, all it takes is a slightest tip for it all to bring you down. 

The insecurity of life. The hopelessness of human condition. What a prophet, Rohinton Mistry. 

-

I collected quotes that I liked from the book on to my phone while I read:

"Time has turned the magical to mundane."

"Noises are like people. Once you get to know them, they become friendly."

"Without beggars how will people wash away their sins?"

"But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended when it suited them memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred it's own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain."

"I used to believe that God is dead. But now, I prefer to think that 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 got well together anymore, it's all become meaningless. So he has abandoned it."

"'You know, Maneck, the human face has limited space. My mother used to say, if you fill your face with laughing, there will be no room for crying.'
'What a nice saying,' he answered bitterly.
'Right now, Dinabai’s face, and Om’s, and mine are all occupied. Worrying about work and money, and where to sleep tonight. But that does not mean we are not sad. It may not show on the face, but it's sitting inside here,' He placed his hand over his heart. 'In here there is limitless room - happiness, kindness, sorrow, anger, friendship - everything fits here.'"

"Parents are as confused by life as anyone else. But they try very hard."

"'It's a strange thing. When my Mumtaz was alive, I would sit alone all day, sewing or reading. And se would be by herself in the back, busy cooking and cleaning and praying. But there would be no loneliness, the days passed easily. Just knowing she was there was enough. And now I miss her so much. What an unreliable thing is time - when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a runner band stretched to suit our fancy, stealing your youthful colour and your hair.' He sighed and smiled sadly, 'but in the end, time is a noise around the neck, strangling slowly."

"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 bug calamity we call life."

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