Thursday 1 January 2009

'there is no such thing as an uninteresting life'

A Fine Balance
by Rohinton Mistry

A book which has languished on my TBR pile for at least two years finally made its way into my hands after another strong recommendation and the window which opened as I awaited gifts from Santa. Until I read Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies this year I had always been wary of fiction from the Indian subcontinent. I have no idea why, but it is an area of the world I hadn't travelled to, wasn't really drawn towards and I had a suspicion that the reverence with which people often speak about it might be evident in the fiction it inspires, leading to a less than satisfying reading experience. Well, that's prejudice for you. Mistry's large and impressive novel has its reverential moments and is certainly not without faults but set against the background of the Emergency in India of the 1970's he tells a story which manages to be both epic and domestic, political and personal, written a style which is comfortingly old-fashioned and yet shot through with moments of startling violence.

We meet our four main characters in a prologue, or rather it is they who meet. On a train into Mumbai, young Maneck Kohlah drops his study books onto Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash. It transpires that they are all travelling to meet the same woman, Dina Dalal; Maneck as a lodger and Ishvar and Om as tailors looking for employment. Having brought the four of them together Mistry then uses the next 250 pages to look back at what has brought them to that point. The two tailors have made a journey not only of geographical distance but of caste. Born into the untouchable Chamaar caste of tanners, where a living was scraped by waiting for other's animals to die, Ishvar's father, in defiance of what is acceptable, apprenticed him to his friend Ashraf, a Muslim tailor, in the hope that he would be able to make that leap into a profession. That it is a Muslim he is apprenticed to allows us to see the conflict within an independent India. As troubles flare between Hindu and Muslim the two young apprentices are able in a single act to save the lives of Ashraf and his family, unaware that they are powerless to help their own family as they come into conflict with the landlords in their attempts to exercise their democratic right to vote.

Maneck has left an isolated life in the mountains in order to pursue an education. He too is looking to better himself but safe in the knowledge that his father's business is there for him to take over in the future. His back story has less impact but works its charms through his ever optimistic parents. His father's store is central to the lives of the rural community, the secret of that success his secret soft drink formula, Kohlah's Cola. Even when his father loses an eye whilst bottling he's a glass-half-full kind of man.

'"One eye is sufficient for the things I am looking forward to seeing," he smiled, touching his wife's swollen belly. Whereas, he added, the ugliness of the world would now trouble him only half as much.'

This is typical of Mistry who is careful never to let things get too rosy before redressing the balance. For Dina this is especially true in spite of her relatively privileged background. She endures a fractious relationship with her domineering brother and seeks to live independently from him. Even when she frustrates her brother's attempts to find a suitable husband by falling in love and finding one for herself it isn't the escape she hopes for and her independence is always tenuous at best. Hence her need for both a lodger and employees to help with her clothing manufacture business.

Having established their backgrounds the novel really takes flight as their lives become closely entwined, stitched together like the quilt that Dina works on throughout the novel - made up from the remnants of fabric she salvages from each consignment. The quilt becomes a textile chronology of their time together an image signalled earlier in the novel, '"If time were a bolt of cloth," said Om, "I would cut out all the bad parts. Snip out the scary nights and stitch together the good parts, to make time bearable. Then I would wear it like a coat, always live happily."' And yet when he recognises one square of the quilt as from the day he and Ishvar lost their homes and Dina offers to cut it out he is more philosophical:

'"Calling one piece sad is meaningless. See, it is connected to a happy piece - sleeping on the verandah. And the next square - chapatis. Then that violet trusser, when we made masala wada and started cooking together. And don't forget this georgette patch, where Beggarmaster saved us from the landlord's goondas."
He stepped back, pleased with himself, as though he had elucidated an intricate theorem. "So that's the rule to remember, the whole quilt is much more important than any single square.'

Mistry is careful to undercut the philosophy (or 'fakeology' as the two tailors call it), always trying to steer a course away from the reverence I mentioned earlier. There are two reasons for this. Firstly there is the rich humour. The gentle joshing or plain hilarity in the face of those oh-so-wise moments is one aspect. But there is also a keen satirical edge to it too. On another train journey Maneck meets a political speech writer who lays bare the mechancs of his trade:

'"I made up three lists: Candidate's Accomplishments (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendoes, and lies), and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better). Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was - a brand new speech."'

Mistry also has a very serious point to make about the politics of the era. Even though she is only ever referred to as 'the Prime Minister' it is clear that Indira Gandhi is not to be viewed sympathetically. Beyond the electoral fraud and the abuse of Emergency power we get to see first hand the destructive nature of her policies; whether the 'beautification' of the country which leads to the destruction of the tailor's slum housing or the spectre of sterilisation, used indiscriminately and with force in order to meet quotas and targets. It is Ishvar and Om who bear the brunt of this of course, constantly buffeted from pace to place by those who wield the power above them. Their story is a harrowing one, all the more so for the relentless nature of what they encounter. There is often a moment of calm after they survive one trial, where you allow yourself the indulgence of thinking that maybe that's it, there can't be more for them to endure with their dignified resignation, but there is and I found myself actually vocalising my anguish as I neared the end of the novel.

When talking about the quilt Ishvar says, 'the talent is in joining the pieces'. There is a similar skill in not just assembling a cast of disparate characters for a novel but in making their inter-relationships work, especially with the different ages, castes and cultural backgrounds on show here. In Dina's cramped flat the three men become almost a surrogate family to her, however hard she tries to keep a distance between herself and everything around her. Serving as the background to all this is the city itself, a bustling, chaotic place wonderfully evoked. Any number of its dense population could have been the focus of the narrative as Om is quick to point out to the restaurant owner who is always amazed to hear the latest escapade the tailors have been involved in.

'"It's not us, it's this city", said Om. "A story factory, that's what it is, a spinning mill."'


Anonymous,  2 January 2009 at 04:16  

When I'm asked "what is your favorite book", A Fine Balance is my answer. I think this review does an excellent job of capturing its strength (and its weaknesses). Mistry has written a wonderful story with truly interesting characters -- as a good friend said about 80 per cent of the way through the book "he isn't going to do that to them, is he? I can't stand the prospect." Despite its length, it is also a book that rewards rereading. Mistry's other novels are very good -- this one is truly superb. Your summary indicates why.

William Rycroft 2 January 2009 at 11:24  

I can't believe that as someone who's just found my blog I've started the year with your favourite book! It's always difficult to cover everything you want to say about a book of this length and depth so thank you for your comments.

I was struggling with it about half way through if I'm honest, but I'm so glad that I persisted. It's the kind of book which has the confidence to tell its story without flashy stylistics or tricks, almost Dickensian detail, and take its time too.

Anonymous,  2 January 2009 at 16:29  

It is true that you have to be persistent with this book, but if you are it is most rewarding. Every one of the characters -- but particularly the tailors -- becomes very interesting. The politics of Mrs. Gandhi that Mistry inserts are exceptionally well done and gradually become an overwhelming power in the book.

I know you are hesitant about epics set in India, but if you haven't read Midnight's Children, it does deserve its reputation. Also, watch out for Kamila Shamsie's new book, due for release in March. It starts out in Nagasaki in 1945, moves to Bombay, then on to Pakistan and finally New York -- with a few trips to Afghanistan in the interim. It is a plot driven book but very well done and one that I highly recommend, if you are in the right mood when you undertake it. Definitely not post-modern.

Anonymous,  2 January 2009 at 20:04  

I read Mistry's last novel Family Matters in the earliest days of my blog (indeed, it may have been my first post), and had mixed feelings about. Nonetheless, I was always aware that A Fine Balance is the daddy. It's 600 pages, isn't it, so I can't guarantee I'll be picking it up very soon, but your review William, and your recommendation Kevin, ensure it will pass through my hands sometime.

The pub quiz aficionado's trivia on Mistry is that he is, as far as I know, the only writer to have had all his novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize (other than one-novel writers of course).

William Rycroft 2 January 2009 at 22:25  

Thanks for the tip Kevin, 'Burnt Shadows' sounds intriguing. It's time for me to broaden my fictional horizons. I'm not sure it's time for Midnight's Children though. I've not really liked what I've read of Rushdie so far (which isn't much I admit) and I've never known a book divide people like that one. But having recently been crowned 'Best of Booker's' I can't dismiss it out of hand, can I?

Top trivia John. I really fancy a pub quiz now.

Anonymous,  3 January 2009 at 00:45  

Great trivia John. I had not realized that Such a Long Journey (which I also liked) had made the Booker shortlist. I too will be pubbing with this.

I like early Rushdie, William, but not the recent stuff. Midnight's Children definitely fits in the former category and is a very good book.

Anonymous,  3 January 2009 at 10:07  

Rushdie blows hot and cold for me. This is perfectly exemplified by his recent stuff. I absolutely loved Shalimar the Clown but more or less hated The Enchantress of Florence - see my blog for reviews of both, and indeed see my review of Enchantress for a very detailed discussion of Rushdie by people who know much more than I do.

Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows will be published by Bloomsbury in the UK and is one of their lead fiction titles for spring 09. I'm expecting a copy soon and will read it keenly ... if I have time by then!

Anonymous,  3 January 2009 at 18:44  

An interesting comment, John, because I too liked Shalimar, The Clown -- and outside of you I haven't found anyone else who did. I do think that Rushdie's early work is much better than his more recent stuff (Shalimar excepted). When he is good, he is very good -- I suspect his fame overtook his ability.

Anonymous,  3 January 2009 at 18:46  

Kind of like John Irving.

William Rycroft 3 January 2009 at 23:31  

John, you have to make time with those babies you know. Or master my patented read-whilst-getting-baby-off-to-sleep method.

Thanks both for your comments. Midnight's Children will get its moment (perhaps in a similar Christmas limbo this year).

Anonymous,  4 January 2009 at 16:06  

Yes, William, the next month or so will tell. (Incidentally, both Mrs Self and I are enjoying Andrew Clover's Dad Rules. I got hold of a copy on your recommendation recently.)

John Irving! There's a writer I haven't thought about in a while. I still have a good deal of affection for The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, though I wonder if I might find them unbearably sentimental now.

Indeed Irving was the first 'grown-up' novelist I read, back in my teens, and I devoured everything of his up to and including A Son of the Circus (1994). Then I couldn't finish A Widow for One Year and haven't bothered with his two novels since. I think Irving may, for me, be the very opposite of an acquired taste.

Anonymous,  4 January 2009 at 16:58  

Hi William,
I've read a few Mistry novels and this is indeed 'the daddy'. The violence is all the more shocking for the deceptively light-hearted tone common to most of his books. This book shows he can be a great storyteller - it never felt like 600 pages. I also like the way it captures a feeling that, despite the apparent chaos and injustice in India, the human spirit endures in ways that are unique to the sub-continent.

William Rycroft 4 January 2009 at 19:48  

Hi James. Happy New Year. You're absolutely right about the deceptive tone. Those violent moments suddenly appear, making them all the more shocking.

I'm glad you're both enjoying Dad Rules, John. My wife just finished it too and we've been comparing notes. May we both wish both of you all the best for the coming weeks, months, years.......

bobblog 13 January 2009 at 10:43  

Despite the fact that A Fine Balance is quite thick, it is very readable and Mistry's prose is very flowing. To use a cliche I found it unputdownable. Most of all I found a big heart beating in the centre of the novel, despite all the cruelty and heartbreak (for both character and reader) that goes on. Unfortunately none of his other novels have moved me in the same way. I liked some stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag, Hated Such a Long Journey and liked Family Matters but found it lacking something.

William Rycroft 13 January 2009 at 19:25  

Thanks for your comments Bob. Unputdownable is the exact word that my friend used when recommending the book to me. That beating heart at the centre of the book is an interesting idea. I think that comes from a couple of things. Mistry clearly has a lot of love for his characters. There is also that sense of hope, no matter what fate deals them, they never give up (a similar theme seems to be contained in the recent hit film Slumdog Millionaire)

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