This novel celebrates the strength of the human spirit and its struggle to prevail under any circumstances.Central to the story are four characters, a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village.
They are forced to share one cramped apartment. Strangers at first, we observe how their relationships develop and flower, despite, or maybe because of the hardship and pathos enveloping them.
Set in the period from 1975 to 1984, starting with the State of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi and ending with the storming of the Golden Temple, the political backdrop assumes a steady drumbeat throughout the novel with fervent demonstrations, the horrors of compulsory birth control and mass political rallies(farcically described).
Mistry chooses to keep the places anonymous, calling Bombay, the ‘City by the Sea’. He adopts the same approach with the Prime Minister and does not name Indira Ghandi. This adds to the power of the book, giving it a universal and timeless quality.
The writing sparkles. Images such as a ‘conference of cockroaches’ or slums described as ‘scabs and blisters creeping in a dermatological nightmare across the rotting body of the metropolis’ are innovative and graphic. Mistry describes his characters with Dickensian detail, especially the minor ones, like the ‘fakir of fertility’ and the ‘Goo Guru’ or Pandit Lalluram with his ‘brahaminical flatus’ who remain in our memory long after the plot has moved on.
As expected, the scope of this novel generated a wide-ranging and (sometimes) rambling discussion. Some interpreted the title as the fine line of fate, the proximity of survival and destruction. Others thought it referred to finding equilibrium in one’s relationships and the roles one plays in life.
The family is an ongoing preoccupation for Mistry. Many ‘families’ populate this novel – not all biological. Mistry has said ‘family is all. Not just blood relatives, but the people around you, with whom you work, in your community, your church or temple.’ ‘Family,’ he said during his Oprah broadcast, ‘redeems everything, ultimately.’
We ended with a short discussion as to whether this is THE Indian novel. It was inconclusive and truncated… lunch was beckoning. I urge you to read ‘A Fine Balance’ to judge for yourself.
Reviewed by Margo Rosenberg