A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

2020 is almost over. What a dumpster fire the year has been! We are all sick of it. Good riddance! But do permit me to use some blogosphere space to detail one last disappointment. Yes, my most disappointing read of 2020.

Disclaimer: spoilers for the ending.

A Fine Balance, first published in 1995, remains a well-regarded and well-respected novel. Objectively, it is an accomplished work: big and sprawling yet readable. I would not hesitate to recommend it to general and literary readers alike. Despite being 600 pages, the stories are compulsive and the prose user-friendly. It was easy to just keep reading. There is a variety of characters for anyone to have favorites. There are meaty themes for literary readers to sink their teeth into. All my issues with the novel had to do with personal values.

A Fine Balance is a novel in the Dickensian tradition: sweeping and panoramic, consisting of an engaging plot, colorful characters, and both close-up and widescreen shots of a country over a period of time. The Dickensian formula covered the pains and injustices of the Victorian Era, and it is malleable to a variety of historical eras. Rohinton Mistry transported this structure to A Fine Balance. In doing so, he illustrated India during the Emergency under Indira Gandhi – a period rife with many controversies.

On a train journey to a big city by the sea, Maneck, a young student uprooted from his idyllic mountain town, meets two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash. The rise of ready-made garments has dwindled their livelihoods and they want to try their luck in the city. The three become friendly and discover they are headed to the same destination: the house of Dina Dalal, a strong-willed widow constantly fighting to retain her independence. They are an unlikely foursome and over the course of the novel, we learn all about their pasts and their family histories while following their lives from the moment of their initial meeting.

I would argue that Indira Gandhi is the 5th principal character of A Fine Balance. She was never addressed by name, only referred to as the Prime Minister. Yet her presence loomed large. Her policies affected all the characters in thorough and poignant ways. The personal is political – and vice versa. In fact, I believe that “the political is personal” is the stronger adage. Politics affect everyone, including the politically illiterate – whether they like it or not.

After 200 pages, I was concerned about the characters Ishvar and Omprakash. Their lives are marked by unending misery. Born into an untouchable caste, their family history is littered with indignity after indignity. Their own lives are full of mistreatment, pain, and horror. The endless sadness of Ishvar and Omprakash’s lives reminded me of poor Victorian chimney sweeps. Not exactly praise. The pathos was ham-handed, histrionic, and lacked nuance.

As the novel went on, a squicky, uncomfortable feeling grew at the pit of my stomach. This is a despairing, hopeless, and nihilistic novel.

Spoiler alert: one of the four major characters committed suicide at the end.

Honestly, I could not fault the decision. After all, life in A Fine Balance is bleak – with no end in sight.

I tried not to balk too much. I admit to often feeling the same way. When all is said and done, life can be rather pointless. The joys you grasp are easily, unfairly, and whimsically superseded by the avalanche of factors out of your control. Sometimes the sad moments outweigh happiness. Sometimes the concept of justice is worthless in the face of life.

Ultimately, my biggest issue with A Fine Balance was how poorly personhood was treated. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Ishvar and Omprakash’s stories. Horrific, even sensationalist, tragedies keep happening to them. And it was relentless. Almost as if the point of A Fine Balance is to strip them both of all humanity and dignity until there was nothing left. You could argue that the novel realistically depicted how the existing system would treat Ishvar and Omprakash, but I am not convinced. Even if you are a writer and these are your creations, I felt something inherently disrespectful in how Ishvar and Omprakash were treated. Like mindless chess pieces with no agency, available only to be harmed and tortured with no regard for their hopes and yearnings. It wouldn’t matter how the characters screamed or prayed or begged. A Fine Balance is a novel that could make atheists out of readers.

Happy moments do exist, but they are so meager. They almost serve as a mockery. It was doubly heartcrushing to see Ishvar and Omprakash continue to carry on. Almost as though they did not understand what had happened to them. I read some reviews that interpreted it as humanity’s unending capacity for resilience and humor. I just saw it as cruelty. Your mileage may vary, of course.

In addition, the stories unintentionally reinforced, rather than subverted, the idea that human efforts to better their lives are pointless. Life is pointless and what we do is pointless so we all ought to stomach our lots in life. If Ishvar’s father didn’t try to fight caste and better his sons’ lives, his descendants might be better off. Again, my own personal reading and all, but I couldn’t help but perceive the novel’s final message as deeply conservative and even regressive.

Endless bleakness is not realism. It’s as implausible as a fairytale happy ending. My favorite book of the year is On Writing by Stephen King. King wrote and agreed that life is, at the end of the day, plotless. Plotless, yes. But plotless is not unending tragedy. I believe we do have some capacity to shape our lives. Yes, I’m quite a hopeful person. But without faith, what is the purpose of anything?