A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

You know that you’ve finished a great book when after turning the last page, you’re still thinking about the characters for days, wondering how they are, if they’re okay, as if they live in the parallel universe, breathing and going through their daily life at this moment. You would ponder about the memories that have passed, their sadness and happiness. That’s what happened to me with A Fine Balance.

A Fine Balance is vast yet personal. It is about India the country and about its people. After spending weeks with the book, I feel like I almost know India, know the people, the roads, the food, understand their jokes and misery. The book has a lot of characters, with the four main ones: a widow, a student, two tailors (uncle and nephew), and a cast of incredible side characters: beggars, beggar-master, hair-collector, rent-collector, monkey-man. There are so many characters, all unique and memorable, with their own little story, how everything comes to be, how they survive life.

I was quite surprised to find how India is in a lot of ways similar to Indonesia. The chaotic nature of the nation, the corrupt Government, extreme poverty, survival techniques, unbalance of power, massive gap between the rich and the poor, we even share a few similar words.

There are also obvious differences, for example the caste system and the beggaring culture. India is often identified with its odd organized ways to produce beggars, by mutilating body parts. I’m really curious about the origin of that, because we don’t have anything like that in Indonesia, even though poverty is as rampant. The fights between different religions are easy to understand, as we have similar calamity in Indonesia. It seems that human always find reasons to blame and attack those who are different than ourselves, be it religion, race, or tribe.rohinton mistry

“You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” ~ p231

There are a couple of references about ‘a fine balance between hope and despair’, and I honestly didn’t get it until I finished the book. How true that you need a fine balance of hope and despair to live. When despair is too much, everything will topple over, be it a nation or an individual person.

One of the things I loved most was nothing is dramatized. Even the most horrifying parts are written in only a couple of sentences or paragraphs. It’s like Mistry is trying to emphasize that they’re facts. That it happens. It’s nothing like soap-opera. It’s not a made-up drama. And because of that I didn’t experience explosions of emotion, just deep long lingering sorrow at all the misfortunes and anger at all the unfairness.

A Fine Balance impressed me immensely. I closed the book with a big sigh of sadness and happiness. Sadness for it had to end and I had to part with the characters, and it might be a long while before I find any book like this ever again. Happiness for it has touched me very deeply and I feel very lucky to get a chance to be taken on such an amazing journey.

Deep down I wish that someday there will come an author who is able to write about Indonesia as great as Rohinton Mistry did for India. Many voices need to be heard, many tales deserve to be told. If I were to meet Mistry one day, I would say, thank you, thank you, for writing this wonderful book.

5 stars
1996, 614 pp

A Fine Balance is Jackie’s Best Book Ever. Have you read it? Have you read other books by Rohinton Mistry? Would you recommend them?

More Favorite Quotes

“Independence came at a high price: a debt with a payment schedule of hurt and regret.” ~ Dina, p473

First line
The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed.

1996 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Overall Best Book
1995 Giller Prize
Shortlisted for 1996 Booker Prize

Book Awards IV (book #7), 1001 Books (book #31)

Also reviewed by
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32 thoughts on “A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry”

  1. I am really pleased that you loved A Fine Balance. I haven’t read any other Mistry, partly because I’m scared that it won’t live up to my high expectations, but also because I’d like to save it and know I still have more of his books to read. I really should read another one of his books soon though – I do own them all!

    I have recently been studying A Fine Balance in order to write an enhanced profile for it. It will be published on http://www.bookdrum.com in the next week or so, but I’ll let you know the date on my blog. Re-reading and studying the book was very rewarding – it certainly stands up to being analysed.

    I’d love someone to write a book as good as this on Indonesia, but then I wish someone would write a book as good as this on just about every country in the world. No one has managed to write another book as good as this yet, but I hope they do soon.
    .-= [Jackie (Farm Lane Books)´s last blog: Can I Review Chocolate?] =-.

    1. You own them all! You’re definitely well prepared for them. I could share the worry that the others may not be as good.

      I have actually seen your name on bookdrum newsletter months ago, so I look forward to your profile. I was invited to write a profile too but thought I really wouldn’t be able to spare the time and attention that it needed.

      You’re right. Every country has its own story and it would be lovely to have a book as thorough and as personal as A Fine Balance is for India.

    1. Steph, I think for every despair you need to hope to balance it. Hope is born out of despair. Without despair, do you really need hope? Could you have it?

      I’m familiar with the concept because I think that’s what most third world countries get going to survive. As long as a fine balance is maintained people are kept dormant. When despair is too much there would be chaos, riots and coup d’état. But Mistry laid everything down in such a clever way, so yes please read the book to find out!

  2. I read A Fine Balance some time ago and it remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. Unlike you though, I did experience an explosion of emotion, at the very end. I remember sitting on the streetcar in Toronto and wanting to hurl the book at the window across from me I was so angry but it was becuase I cared so much.
    I hardly ever experience such great emotion when reading a novel.

    I read Family Matters by Mistry some time after A Fine Balance and it was very good, but not great. I have to read A Fine Balance Again. Like Jackie said, it would be great if every country had a novel about it as good as this one is about India. Maybe we should start a list? I would add A Suitable Boy to great novels about India (though not as great as A Fine Balance).
    .-= [Tricia´s last blog: Review: The Glimpses of the Moon] =-.

    1. Tricia, thanks for visiting. By explosion of emotion I meant I did not cry. But in a way it’s probably worse, because I finished reading it over a week ago and I’m still feeling down now. I care so much for the characters too.

      I would love to read Mistry’s other books, but I should keep my expectations under control, because it’s hard to imagine any will be as good. After A Fine Balance, I’ve been thinking to read A Suitable Boy too. But it’s so thick so I will need to spare a big chunk of time. Maybe next year. I would love to get more recommendations on books about India! Or any other country really.

    1. Nymeth, apart from the title, I was also curious about the cover. What’s the little girl doing on top of a pole? The answers are in the book :).
      But if you want to find out about the cover now, you could check out Lotus Reads review above. There’s awesome picture and snippets of article about it.

    1. Claire, could you also give him a hug for me? :D

      Wow I didn’t know it happens in Philippine too. I wonder now if I’m just ignorant of the beggars condition in Indonesia.

    1. Valerie, if what all the others who have read both said is any indication, I’m sure you’d like A Fine Balance! I do hope to read A Suitable Boy in the future.

  3. i picked up A Fine Balance at a local used book store and then it sat and marinated on my shelves for nearly 5 years before i got around to picking it up. and wow, was i mad at myself for waiting so long to crack it open once i was done! it has easily found its way onto my list of top picks. it is such a wonderful read and your review really captures the tone and quality of the book.

    i haven’t read any of Mistry’s other books, but i intend to pick up one or two others sometime this year.
    .-= [the little reader´s last blog: The Value of Opinions] =-.

    1. the little reader, thanks for visiting and the compliment. I’m always worried reviewing books that I love, that I might not do them justice.

      Happy to hear it’s one of your top picks too!

  4. I think this is the first book I read about South Asia which didn’t hold back, and showed how difficult life is for a strata of society. But within it people find joy and love and a reason to live. And it was also the first book that shocked me into seeing that not all stories have a happy ending. That’s just how life is. I like what you say about balancing hope and despair. Brilliant review.
    .-= [Sakura´s last blog: Library Loot: April 21-27, 2010] =-.

    1. Sakura, I learned so much from the book. I had a vague idea of the caste society, but nowhere near the details in the book. Many things shocked me (including the ending). But you’re right, that’s just how life is. And often a non-happy ending leaves marks on me far longer than the happy one. It’s brilliant.

  5. I’m back after reading the book myself. And you’re so right about how nothing is dramatised. That’s how I felt about Mistry’s style as well. And like you, I was reminded of Malaysia for a while, especially the parts about the corrupt government, rigged elections, and (sadly enough) the part about MISA (we have our own version, the ISA, which is pretty much the same thing, ie. detention without trial).

    Anyway, interesting to note that A Suitable Boy seems to be the general consensus about where to be headed next. Might want to try that next year too. Maybe we could time it so that we read it at roughly the same time? =)
    .-= [Michelle (su[shu])´s last blog: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood] =-.

    1. Michelle, wow Malaysia has government body with similar name and function?! I’m not sure if we have something similar, but we do have a lot of people missing when they oppose the government.. (or used to, not so much now after the reformation) The rigged election happens a lot in Indonesia too.

      Ooh I’m excited that you intend to read A Suitable Boy too now. Next year sounds great. It’s a really thick book, so I need to spare a big chunk of time!

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