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A Fine Balance (thoughts)

August 4, 2010

When I began A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, I had no idea what the book would be about, other than that it was set during Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ (which I first met in fiction during Midnight’s Children) and all sorts of bloggers had loved it and told me I would too. ;) My experience with the book formed a kind of curve…at the beginning I felt a bit ‘murgh,’ then I settled into it, then for a couple hundred pages (around page 300-500) I really loved it, and then the last hundred pages made me feel horribly depressed, which I resented.

Here’s the thing: it’s not as if I’m new to books with sad endings, and it’s not as if Mistry didn’t give plenty of warnings that things weren’t going to end well. He certainly wasn’t any meaner to his characters than Edith Wharton. I can’t precisely explain my reaction, then, to watching Mistry stop out the happiness in the book with a certain inevitable air; perhaps I was having a bad day already, and my defenses weren’t up enough to deal with a depressing book. But when I turned the final page, it had made me feel like the world was simply hopeless. And hesitant to recommend A Fine Balance to others; I don’t want to feel responsible for their hopelessness!

But let’s back up. Mistry’s greatest strength is his characterisation: even the characters I didn’t like (I loathed Om, especially after he paid money to spy on a woman changing in a tailor shop and jerk off…which is pretty representative of how he felt about my gender…obviously we only exist to provide sexual gratification) sprang to life, and as you can see by my little Om rant, I seriously began thinking of them as real people. It’s a rare author who can achieve that kind of effect, and I applaud Mistry for it (it might also be why the ending so upset me). They all acted consistently with their own characters, and Mistry handles their gradual changes from interacting with each other, which lead to larger and larger changes, masterfully. Dina is a forty-something woman clinging to lower-middle-class independence who decides to take in piecework and hire two tailors, Om and his uncle Ishvar, who have escaped their caste-bound village where they were untouchables and are trying to make it in the big city. She also takes in a ‘paying guest’ to make ends meet: Maneck, the eighteen-year-old son of one of her schoolmates, who has been sent from his hometown in the Himalayas to study a course in refrigeration and air conditioning at an institute. While the city’s never named, I thought it was Mumbai…it’s huge, on the sea, and hot. ;) Anyway, Mistry provides the backstory for each of the characters, so we get to see glimpses of other regions of India and peek into the life of how different classes live. Even his minor characters are memorable; I shan’t soon forget Beggar Master, a man who runs a group of beggars around the city (protecting them in return for a large cut of their earnings), the Muslim tailor who helps Ishvar and his brother reinvent themselves as tailors instead of leather-curers, or Avinash, Maneck’s friend at college who gets caught up in politics. They’re all so sharply drawn!

There isn’t really much of a plot to speak of; the book is driven by the characters and portraying life during the Emergency (especially humanising what the poorest Indians went through). This is fine with me, since I’m not a big plot girl anyway! ;) Mistry did an excellent job of avoiding black-and-white judgements; he presents various sides of a situation through different characters. For example, someone like Beggar Master, who at first glance seems like a pretty awful person taking advantage of people too poor to do anything but beg (rather like a begging pimp), is shown to truly care about his beggars and charges (as long as they pay up). He has his good and bad qualities like anyone else…and Mistry does this with all of the characters (well, except for the upper castes in Ishvar’s village, who are just represented by the horrible things they do to the untouchables), both major and minor. The program of forced sterilisation receives a lot of space in the novel, and while it’s usually shown as a human rights outrage or bureaucratic nightmare, towards the end one woman says:

“I’m not worried. I’m looking forward to it. Five children I already have, and my husband won’t let me stop. This way he has no choice-government stops it.”

This really struck home for me; of course, I don’t think it lessens Indira Gandhi’s horrid crimes, but it was interesting to think about the women who might have welcomed such a step.

Speaking of women, Mistry doesn’t try to minimise the effect of a culture than privileges men, which is refreshing in a male author (although depressing). This scene, from Om’s village childhood made me quite sad:

But she used the excuse to lavish on him special treats like cream, dry fruits, and sweetmeats, bursting with pleasure while he ate. Now and then her fingers swooped into his plate, scooped up a morsel and tenderly transported it to his mouth. No meal was complete unless she had fed him something with her own hands.
…Omprakash’s sisters were silent spectators at the mealtime ritual. Leela and Rekha watched enviously, knowing better than to protest or plead with the adults. During rare moments when no one was around, Omprakash shared the delicacies with them. More often, though, the two girls wept quietly in their beds at night.

And Dina’s struggles are in large part because after the death of her father, her brother controlled her life (wouldn’t allow her to continue school, etc.). Mistry also explores how ‘modesty’ might lead to oversexed men, as in Om’s case, and this idea that women primarily exist for men, to make their lives easier. It wasn’t the primary point of the book, but it did run through it, and I appreciate Mistry not whitewashing the issues (let’s be honest: it’s not as if post-WWII US was a golden age for women either).

Mistry’s writing, while sometimes a bit over-reliant on certain metaphors (towards the end, I was getting tired of the quilt-as-symbol-of-life motif), is marvelously descriptive. Here’s a scene from a funeral for a beggar, which all of the beggars attend:

The slowest-moving procession ever to wind its way through city streets started towards the cremation grounds just afer four. The great number of cripples kept it at a snail’s pace. The deformities of some had atrophied their bodies, reducing them to a froglike squat: they swung along using their arms as levers. A few could only manage the sideways shuffle of a crab. Others, doubled over, crawled forward on their hands and feet, their behinds raised in the air like camels’ humps. Bu a tacit consensus, the cortege proceeded at the lowest common velocity, but their spirits were high as they laughed and chattered among themselves, enjoying a new experience, so that it seemed more a festival than a funeral.

I love the simplicity and understated quality to his language, which I believe contributes to how real the characters seem. Here’s one of my favourite bits:

Maneck, too, had lately seen the world being remade around him. But with optimism surging through youthful veins, he was certain that things would sort themselves out. He was fifteen: he was immortal, the hills were eternal.

Doesn’t that just capture adolescence? :)

At the end of the day, I definitely want to read more of Mistry in the future (my library has both Such a Long Journey and Family Matters). I believe that now that I know he’s more of a Wharton than, say, a Trollope, I’ll be better prepared for how the story lines go. I do still have mixed feelings about A Fine Balance, but I’m very glad that I read it. I wish I could see myself rereading it in future years, but I’m not sure that I could handle the ending twice.

This seems to be shaping up into a week of endings-I-wasn’t-a-fan-of! How important is a book’s ending to how you feel about it as a whole?

47 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2010 10:38 am

    I have had this one on my TBR pile for a long time now, but I still haven’t managed to read it. Despite your unhappiness with the ending, I think it’s worth reading. I’ll just have to prepare myself – I do love Edith Wharton, so maybe it won’t be so bad for me.

    • August 5, 2010 12:31 am

      I love Wharton too! (Sorry, I suppose I should have mentioned that in my post.) I think if you’re prepared, you’ll be fine. I honestly think it just caught me on a day I was already kind of sad, so having a sad book just made things that much worse, you know?

  2. August 4, 2010 10:45 am

    The ending is important to me – it’s the last impression I have of the book!

    • August 5, 2010 12:33 am

      I’ve noticed that the ending is really important in my short-term thinking of the book, but when I give it a few days and begin to write my post, it becomes not quite so important. Weird, right?

  3. August 4, 2010 11:22 am

    Yeah, it’s a pretty brutal ending, alright. I guess it was largely what I expected, though, so it didn’t particularly change my impression of the book as a whole – e.g., it seemed consistent to me with the rest of the story – in fact, I sort of felt like a happy ending would have felt odd, given the circumstances of all the characters. Which is not to say that I think the ending invalidates the relationships the characters were able to forge while they were together…

    Endings are important, for sure. Of the group of us who just read Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter, the ending ruined the book for some & redeemed it for others.

    • August 5, 2010 12:33 am

      I agree that it was consistent! (I’m sorry if that didn’t come across.) I guess I just couldn’t fall head over heels in love with the book BECAUSE of that aspect of it. Even during the lovely bits, I knew Mistry had written them in order to make whatever would happen next seem that much worse. I couldn’t let me guard down!

  4. August 4, 2010 12:20 pm

    The ending of a book is actually the most important thing to me; it’s the final note, the thing that sets the ultimate tone for the rest of the book and determines how I reflect on the book as a whole. Up until a book’s ending, anything is possible, but a book’s ending concretizes the story, and so for me it’s so important that it lives up to the rest of the book.

    I haven’t read this one but have only read rave reviews until yours… I had heard it was a hard novel (and I believe I have actually read a quote from it that reflects on the nature of hopelessness and helplessness), but also a very powerful one. I don’t think I’m in the mood to feel completely bummed out by a book at the moment, so while I think I will read this one day, I probably won’t any time soon.

    • August 5, 2010 12:35 am

      I definitely think hard but powerful is a good way to describe it. If I’d read it during a different week, I might have gushed about it. But there you have it…I think part of the problem might have been that my last Indian read was Sea of Poppies, which I loved so, so much and which was full of the joy of life despite its hardships. A Fine Balance doesn’t have so much of the joy of life stuff, even during the good bits. I’m still glad I read it, though.

      I LOVED what you said about the ending of a book: so smart and thought-provoking. :)

  5. August 4, 2010 1:09 pm

    I saw when you were getting close to the end on Twitter and were hoping for a happy ending. I wanted to pat you on the shoulder because I knew what was coming. It is a tough book and tougher ending. I was glad to have read it but yeah, it’s hard to recommend to people.

    • August 5, 2010 12:38 am

      I pretty much knew it was going to be a sad ending, but I was hoping against hope. lol (And at the time I tweeted that, I’d already read the bit about Om and Ishvar! I was just REALLY hoping that Dina could end up well.)

  6. August 4, 2010 2:16 pm

    I’m not a fan of hopeless, I swear. But you’ve made me want to read this book soooo much! And part of it is because of how deeply the ending affected you. I am sorry though, Eva, that it left you so sad. :(

    • August 5, 2010 12:38 am

      It’s ok: I cheered myself up eventually! ;) (In fact, I went online and read book blogs.)

      I think this would be a really good book for you to read, Debi, as long you’re prepared: it was really affecting, and I’ll remember the characters forever.

  7. August 4, 2010 2:21 pm

    Based on the quotes you chose, the writing is beautiful, and I am fascinated by the setting. But I don’t know whether this would appeal to me. It seems to me that a long book (500+ pages) should have a satisfying ending. :-)

    • August 5, 2010 12:41 am

      In the context of the book, the depressing ending is quite satisfying…in the sense that it feels inevitable and ‘right.’ Does that make sense? So I say go for it!

  8. winstonsdad permalink
    August 4, 2010 2:47 pm

    I loved this when I read it a few years ago ,mistry is such a easy writer to read I ve got his tales from … on my tbr pile ,all the best stu

    • August 5, 2010 12:41 am

      I can definitely see you loving it Stu! I really want to read more Mistry; hopefully, it was just my mood, and I’ll be able to connect more with his other novels. His writing is marvelous.

  9. August 4, 2010 3:42 pm

    This sounds like a good, though depressing, book. Ending is really important to me and I’d prefer a depressing book with a slightly hopeful ending than a hopeful book with a depressing ending!

    • August 4, 2010 3:44 pm

      Tee hee, and I can’t help but say that it’s too bad it wasn’t more of ‘a fine balance’ for you between the hopeful and depressing ;)

      • August 5, 2010 12:43 am


        There are definitely ‘sparks of the good in humanity’ bits to the book, but the whole thing has a kind of Greek tragedy feel to it, as if there’s nothing we can do but struggle against our horrible fate until we succumb, that I just couldn’t quite handle. On the plus side, the ending didn’t feel ‘sprung’ on me at all…it was very consistent with the rest of the writing. ;)

  10. August 4, 2010 3:56 pm

    You know, there are times when I really feel jerked around by some authors who I think feel that a sad ending will make the book more memorable or something. It’s hard to describe but there are some authors who I think rely on that and it feels false. Here the ending is completely depressing (It took me days to get over it) but I didn’t feel like as a reader I was being manipulated. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, I do know it took me a while to settle down with another book after reading this one so I hope you can find another read quick and it’ll be something good.

    • August 5, 2010 12:46 am

      I definitely think that makes sense, and I completely agree with you!

      I read this one almost two weeks ago now (it took me that long to gain enough distance to write about it in a semi-coherent manner), so fortunately I’ve had some more uplifting reads in the meantime. ;)

  11. August 4, 2010 4:10 pm

    Argggh, I am so dumb today, I keep accidentally closing browser windows while they are still thinking about posting my comments.

    To recapitulate, I want to read this even if it is sad. I will just read it while in high spirits, and I will read the end in advance so that the sad events take me even less by surprise than Mistry intended. :p Are most of the characters introduced pretty early on? Because when I read the end of a book too soon, and encounter characters in the end that I don’t know from the beginning, I take violently against the new characters. Like Florence in Tipping the Velvet. I hated that chick.

    • August 5, 2010 12:47 am

      I hate it when I do that!

      It’s definitely worth reading. And yep, all of the characters in the ending are introduced fairly early in the book. But I’m seriously cringing at the idea of reading an ending first!!!

      Also, I’m now clutching Florence to my bosom, because I heart her!

  12. August 4, 2010 4:43 pm

    You know what, yes this is one of the saddest books ever. And yes it made me feel extremely depressed when it was over, and probably I cried too. But I think the beauty of this novel is the reality of it, the fact that I honestly felt like the characters were real people (probably why I was so emotionally affected by it), the glimpse I was given to India at that time, everything. And I never felt like I was being manipulated by the author, like I do with some extremely sad books, it just felt like a logical conclusion to what was a sad story.

    And the writing – I don’t usually allow writing to take over when reading a book, but I was really captivated by the writing in this one. Something about it was just so beautiful for me.

    I’m so glad you read this one even if you didn’t love it as much as I did. :)

    • August 5, 2010 12:52 am

      I agree: I don’t think Mistry was at all manipulative. And like you said, I COMPLETELY saw the characters as real people. For me, I think I just wasn’t in quite the right frame of mind to handle it. And I do want to read more Mistry: I think he’s an incredible author!

  13. August 4, 2010 6:48 pm

    I agree with a couple of comments above. The ending is in the same tone with the entire book and I don’t feel manipulated to be sad in any way. I think the book is a realistic portrayal of life. Most people in real life don’t have happy endings. I like how the book ends with some hopefulness at the end. It’s not completely absolutely depressing, no. Bad things happen to you, but life goes on, pick yourself up. It’s amazing how resilient people can be. I think I mentioned in my review that I feel very close with the story. India is not that far off from Indonesia, in fact the resemblance was striking. For me it’s not a tale from land far far away. It’s a tale quite close to home: the chaos, the civil unrest, the class segregation, the racial and religious riots, the corrupt government. Very honest and real.

    • August 5, 2010 12:57 am

      I’m sorry that I didn’t make it more clear in my post that I didn’t find Mistry or the book at all manipulative. And I did say how real the book felt for me. But I did find the ending absolutely depressing…it made me feel as if life is pointless. I know that a lot of people around the world live in very trying circumstances, but when I read this book, I was already sad so I didn’t exactly need a 600 page reminder of all of that. That doesn’t take away from me seeing Mistry as a marvelous writer, it just takes away from my gushing about the book.

  14. August 4, 2010 11:47 pm

    Sounds like it’s worth reading anyway. Endings are important, but if the rest is really good then I can look past my disappointment with the ending… sometimes. :-)

    • August 5, 2010 12:57 am

      It’s definitely worth reading! I don’t think the ending was disappointing, so much as heart wrending. Does that make sense?

  15. August 5, 2010 4:52 am

    I really want to read this, since every blogger seems to love it. However, I’m not sure if I could deal with the hopeless feeling you described. I actually have it noted down on my TBR-list with a side note that tells me not to read it if I’m not feeling good.

    • August 5, 2010 7:27 pm

      Just prepare yourself, and you should be fine. Maybe have a hopeful book waiting in the wings?

  16. August 5, 2010 5:56 am

    I enjoyed the journey although I had an instinctive feeling that the destination would not be pleasant. Mistry comes close to Dickens in depicting a range of characters who, together, give you a sense of the society in which they live. If you like his writing, try his other books. The one called Family Matters has lots of troubles but a less negative ending.

    • August 5, 2010 7:30 pm

      I had that same instinct as you, despite hoping that I’d be wrong. ;)

      You know, I can see the comparison to Dickens, except for me his characters all feel like caricatures to me. (But then, I’ve never really connected with Dickens, so I’m sure his fans would disagree!)

      I’m glad to hear Family Matters isn’t quite so bleak.

  17. August 5, 2010 6:41 am

    That quote about adolescence is perfect. Might I assume it made it into your commonplace book? :)

    Endings are hugely important, seeing as I’m this close to eloping with plot. It’s what the story is driving towards, it’s the culmination of it. A bad ending can invalidate an entire book. A good ending can redeem a so-so book.

    • August 5, 2010 7:32 pm

      You would assume correctly! ;)

      For me, a bad ending can’t invalidate all of the good writing before it, but it does disappoint me. :(

  18. August 5, 2010 7:06 am

    I am glad that you read Fine Balance. I need to read it as well. To answer your question, the ending is pretty important to how I feel about the book. A good ending can make or break my experience with the book.

    • August 5, 2010 7:33 pm

      I’m glad I read it too: it felt like an important book!

  19. August 5, 2010 8:34 am

    I started reading A Fine Balance years ago and was not ready for it. Yesterday we visited a favorite used bookstore and I traded in some books and guess what I found on the shelf? I have a plan. If I can stop bringing home so many library book I will read Mistry and then reread Midnight’s Children.

    I do not mind a sad ending if it is a culmination of events in the book, I do not mind unresolved issues or things left dangling, if well-written. I do not like rushed endings, where it feels like the author is done and just wants to get it over with. That can completely spoil a book for me. Thanks for a great review, Eva. I’m off to Vancouver for a few days!

    • August 5, 2010 7:35 pm

      I agree with you re: sad endings being alright as long as they work with the book. This one did, it was just SO hopeless (vs. just sad). I’m glad you liked this post; it was difficult for me to figure out how to write about this one!

      Rushed endings, or tacked on ‘deus ex machina’ ones, feel like cop outs to me and annoy me greatly!

  20. August 5, 2010 4:08 pm

    I have both Midnight’s Children and A Fine Balance in my TBR, which do you think I should read first? It’s going to be a while before I get to either, though — and I’ll be sure to brace myself during the last 100 pages of A Fine Balance!

    • August 5, 2010 7:38 pm

      Hmmm…it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Midnight’s Children is VERY magical realist while Fine Balance is just realist. Fine Balance was easier to read in terms of language, but harder for me because I identified more with one of the characters, so it was hard to see what happened to her. Fine Balance was more somber while Midnight’s Children had a rollicking feel to it…bad things happen in both, though.

      Did that help you decide at all? Probably not, lol

  21. August 5, 2010 4:10 pm

    Ugh — that last comment was by me, not actually “hazyhazeleyes”! Apparently my daughter was still logged into her wordpress account and I didn’t know it :-P.

  22. August 7, 2010 4:56 am

    I did not read this post carefully, stopping at the words “sad ending” because after the response I received on it when I posted it for a Library loot, I’m dying to read it. Then we’ll talk. As to sad endings, now I’m already nervous. But, perhaps in a good way. Things can’t always be happy.

  23. August 8, 2010 2:24 am

    Endings so often make or break a novel for me and completely cement my experience of the novel as a whole. A Fine Balance has one of the most brutal, devastating endings that I have ever read and it has stayed with me for years. Someone persuaded me recently (and I was resistant!) that ultimately the ending is hopeful upon rereading and not as bleakly hopeless as it may seem upon first reading; I do plan on rereading it one day and perhaps without the shock, devastation and with the emotional preparation, I shall see that glimmer of hope …

  24. August 8, 2010 5:29 am

    Wow, now I’m intrigued. I heard of this book a while back and also had no idea what it was about. I love the different reactions you had from this book – I love a book that can do that, don’t you? – and now I definitely want to check it out and see how I also respond. :D

  25. August 12, 2010 9:05 am

    I felt exactly the same as you regarding this book. It’s probably one of the best books I’ve read; Mistry’s prose is elegant and he writes about the characters and the society they live in so well. But the ending depressed me terribly. I read it one summer together with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and I think I preferred A Fine Balance. But because of the ending I don’t think I could face re-reading it and I’m also hesitant to recommend it (I still do because it really is an amazing book about India, but I always warn people that it may leave them depressed!)

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