A Fine Balance
There’s something about this book that breaks down the wall of fiction and leaves the reader feeling viscerally overwhelmed by what they‘ve just read. In 1970s India, two tailors- one young, one middle-aged- flee the caste- related violence and torture they face as ‘untouchables.‘ They find lodgings with Dina Dalal, a feisty, dignified but lonely widow who‘s used to her life in solitude but is barely making ends meet, and Maleck, a naïve, bookish student.
They are forced together in one cramped apartment, where their initial feelings of resentment and awkwardness soften into companionship and friendship and even love, but surrounded by violence, vengeance and a dog-eat-dog mentality fostered by years of cruelty , they eventually find themselves falling victim to the brutality and suffering that pervades their lives. It’s nightmarish in places, but the humanity of the characters and the beauty of their little family is what you remember- that ‘fine balance,’ one of the characters refers to between hope and despair.
Of Mistry’s other books, Tales from Firozha Baag and Family Matters are happier reads and deal with similar themes of families, cramped quarters, poverty and love, but although A Fine Balance is a uniquely painful book, it’s undeniably his best, told with a Dickensian compassion and scope.