Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry

There's a sentence in the book that refers to the fine balance between hope and despair. Set in India in the 1970s, the book addresses other dichotomies, such as male/female, haves/have-nots, and lucky/unlucky. The four main characters are Dina, Maneck, Om, and Ishvar. Dina is a 40-something widow in India renting out a room in her ramshackle flat to Maneck, a college student. She also employs 2 untouchables, Ishvar and his nephew Om, as tailors to help make ends meet. Gradually, this foursome becomes a loose family, as Dina throws caution to the wind and offers living space on her veranda to the tailors. She succumbs to this inevitable arrangement to save them from the constant peril and uncertainty of living in the slums or on the streets. I think that this book could be reduced in length by a few hundred pages without serious harm, but I will say that I became immersed in the lives of the characters after spending so much time with them. Oddly enough, hope and despair do not align naturally along caste boundaries. Maneck has no real barriers to success, financial or otherwise, but he is somewhat morose and constantly at odds with his father. Dina occasionally has to stoop to relying on the good graces of her brother, who treats her like a servant, but at least she'll never be completely homeless. Om and Ishvar, on the other hand, despite their sewing skills, are invariably on the fringe, precariously teetering between an almost tolerable life and unimaginable suffering at the hands of those in power. Maneck sees life as a game of chess, but the tailors cannot comprehend a stalemate, much less the no-way-out concept of checkmate. Ishvar, the least showy character, is the one who keeps trudging forward, hoping for a better life for himself and Om, but thwarted at every move.

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