Some books I love because I can’t shake them off. I enter into the dense patchwork of prose and emerge altered. I love those books, though sometimes their barbs bristle and make me uncomfortable. Other books I love because they’re beautiful, and that can make up for many other structural foibles. There are other books I love because they are true, and others because they’re indulgent. And yet other books I love because I wish I’d written them.
Then, there are books that I love because they come into my life at just at the right time.
On November 8 of 2016, I happened to be reading the perfect book. I had started it only a week before, heading to the bookshelf to choose the chunkiest paperback I could find for my first morning train commute. The book was called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As a sucker for epic books set in India (of which there happen to be multitudes), this novel had been on my list for a while.
That said, I’m happy I delayed reading the novel for the time of Donald Trump’s election. While on the one hand, I feared that my country was spinning so fast that we were all going to slide off the surface of the earth, I had a book that told me: it could be worse.
In A Fine Balance, the lives of four characters are thrust together when they all briefly stay within the house of Dina Dalal, an independent widow attempting to hold on to her old apartment by running an illegal clothing factory. She employs an itinerant uncle/nephew duo, whose comedic timing and camaraderie is darkened by an undercurrent of caste violence in their hometown. Then, they’re joined by the quiet student studying air conditioning, who feels adrift in the big city and longs to return to his father’s store in the mountains. Or, better put, to his childhood in the mountains, before everything changed.
Accompanying Mistry’s four main characters is a chorus of vivid, fantastic ancillary characters who are just as memorable. There are characters lurking the backstories and memory, usually cloaked in nostalgia. And boy, are there villains. There are villains who raze entire settlements; people with violence in their guts; the erosion of soul that occurs from a prolonged lack of kindness.
“The human face has limited space. If you fill it with laughter there will be no room for crying.”
The greatest villain in A Fine Balance, however, is everything that is done to the four main characters without their consent. Aka, the economy. As it turns out, no matter how lovely and fantastic your personality is (and they are all so lovely), they are at mercy of external circumstances. And external circumstances in India in the 1970s were just, well, not so great. Mistry’s world is bursting from the seams with detail — Dickensian detail — and that makes the status quo all the more horrifying. The nephew and uncle, for example, are completely bound in by their class and status. It haunts them with violence and injustice for the rest of their lives.
Individualism — people’s personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, what makes them human — is steamrolled under Great Economic Forces. Only in Dina’s confined apartment can the four characters live in a briefly society free from the pressures, assumptions, and that govern the outside world, especially for the poor.
As the best fiction does, A Fine Balance made me get outside myself. It showed me more convincingly than any non-fiction ever could that it could be worse.
“Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.”
My DT-induced anxiety, while bad, was tempered by this incredibly realistic account of India as it crawled towards independence. As in: my family didn’t face violence for trying to vote. As in: I wasn’t sleeping on doorsteps, or confined to the whims of my demanding older brother, or my home wasn’t being deforested by the British.
In A Fine Balance, being an individual is only possible if you have money. Otherwise, you’re crushed under the wheel of corrupt, conniving, and indifferent bureaucracy.
And what makes the book so damn effective is that in Dina’s apartment, we see these four characters — lambs to the slaughter of the economy — in their full individual glory. I highly recommend reading this book. It’s an exercise in empathy.
For a more in-depth analysis of this incredibly plotted novel, check out this blog post.