ABCs of 1001 Books: A Fine Balance

A – What attracted me to Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is that it is a novel set in India written by a native of the country. I’ve only read books set in India written by British or American men, most notably E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India and John Irving’s A Son of the Circus, and most recently Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I knew this would give very different insights into the culture of the country in 1975.

B – The balance in the title is of course a thematic one, stated by a classic novel-character: the wise person who randomly shows up in more than one person’s life and offers valuable insights. I’ll leave it up to you to read the novel to learn what two things this character thinks life is a fine balance between.

C – The novel has a large cast of characters as the author describes the family and friends of the four main characters either as they are introduced or before they are introduced. In brief, Ishvar and Omprakash are downtrodden tailors who go to work in a home business run by a downtrodden widow, Dina, who also takes in a friend’s college-age son, Maneck, as a boarder. More on each to follow.

D – Dina is my favorite. Even though I can’t relate to her as an orphan and widow, I can relate to her as a single woman trying to maintain financial and physical independence in an economy that favors families and property owners. Although the some might view the change of heart she goes through in the middle of the novel as predictable, I see it as hopeful.

E – The novel shows the life-altering effects of the Emergency on everyday citizens who had no hand in the political decisions that led to it. Most of the characters have no strong political opinions but are trying to survive with their values in tact. As with Junot Diaz and Ezekiel Mphahlele’s novels, I learned about historical, real-world problems that I was ignorant of before. (A blatant plug for reading to learn – do it!)

F – “Fine” is a funny word. Everyone kind of knows but doesn’t verbally acknowledge that although fine used an adjective to describe yourself is supposed to mean you’re well or all right, what it actually means is you want everyone to think of you and respond to you as if you are all right when you’re really not. It also has conflicting dictionary definitions. “Of high quality.” “Good; satisfactory.”“Of imposing or dignified appearance or size.” “(of speech or writing) sounding impressive and grand but ultimately insincere.” So is “fine” a good or bad thing to be? Oh the ridiculously versatile English language.

G – Although it is not a gigantic book at 603 pages, I spent almost a month reading it. But during that time I also read two books for graduate courses and listened to five audiobooks, including the audiobook for my next blog entry.20180531_115554

H – A haiku for Dina:

  • Reluctantly shared 
  • household, family, food, stories, then self:
  • quilting family.



I – Ishvar is the most stable character. Some may think this makes him boring, that he doesn’t change throughout the events of the novel, isn’t dynamic. But I think it’s interesting to see how a character with clear values continuously honors them through both mundane and horrific troubles.

J – Mistry has another novel, Such a Long Journey, which is set in India in the 1970s and deals with the political corruption through a character more directly involved in it. If you’ve read it, let me know if it’s worth a read.

K – Manek’s father, referred to by his surname Kohlah, is a minor but memorable character. The sections from his perspective provide both a context and a contrast for Manek’s choices and life in the city.

L – I appreciate how Mistry links each main character’s life inextricably with the life of at least one family member. This is a reality about life that I think many modern American writers ignore, presenting protagonists only within the contexts of their work, friends, and/or romantic relationships and treating family relationships as mere backstory, just character-building.

M – I have mixed feelings about Manek. I could identify with him somewhat as a young person going to college and opening his eyes to corruption and hardships through a friendship with a political activist. His conflicts with his parents, although sad and frustrating, made sense. I don’t understand his actions in the final chapters of the novel. Maybe I refuse to understand.

N – I partially agree with this back-cover quote from the New York Times: “[Rohinton Mistry] needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is magical.” I agree that Mistry’s writing vivifies real life. I don’t agree that the effect is to make real life look magical. Mistry’s details are vivid, gritty, grounded, enticingly specific.

O – Omprakash, nicknamed Om, is not as well-developed through thoughts as the other three main characters. That’s not to say he’s a flat character; he simply doesn’t have the same rich inner world as the others. He’s eighteen at the novel’s start, and Mistry builds him up from the angry teenager archetype. His loyalty to his uncle Ishvar keeps him from being completely annoying to me.

P – The picture on the edition of the paperback I read (and that you will see first thing in a Google search for the title) is of a child balancing on a pole with a background of clouds. It’s clearly a visual metaphor to reinforce the title. I don’t have any strong feelings about it.

Q – Before the table of contents, Mistry includes a quote from Honoré de Balzac’s Le Pére Goriot which in brief accusing the reader of insensitivity and insisting the story is true. It does seem insensitive to just go on about my life after reading a book about such suffering, suffering that did not in its specifics happen but which happens in our world. But what can I do but go on? And try not to be the cause of that suffering?

R – Rajaram, a minor character and friend to Ishvar and Om, probably changes the most throughout the novel. He collects and sells hair. At first this isn’t too weird, but later… whoa.

S – I love this quote about storytelling, from when Dina is listening to the wise fool, Valmik. “His sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without calling attention to the stitches. Was he aware of ordering events for her? Perhaps not – perhaps the very act of telling created a natural design. Perhaps it was a knack that humans had, for cleaning up their untidy existences – a hidden survival weapon, like antibodies in the bloodstream” (555). So many rich metaphors!

T – Every character drinks tea. It’s not only a social connector, giving people something to do while they talk, but also a social equalizer, enjoyed by people of all classes.

U – “Rigorously unsentimental and full of black humor, A Fine Balance, takes the reader through a vicious and sometimes carnivalesque world of poverty and utter powerlessness” (857). This quote from 1001 Books captures the novel’s tone and overall topic more eloquently than I have.

V – Vasantrao Valmik is a minor character and compelling storyteller. I’d like to spend a train ride with him.

W – As has become usual, the Wikipedia article on this book helped me write this blog post, mostly with its list of the many characters. There are “multiple issues” with the article’s research, sources, and citations. So if you’re reading this post because you’re already familiar with the novel, maybe you can help edit that article.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – There tends to be one letter in every entry that defies my attempts at creativity, and in this entry it is Y.

Z – Here are two fantastic Z-names: Zenobia (female) and Zarir (male).

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