Rohinton Mistry, McClelland and Stewart, 1995.
Looks like I’m keeping to the theme of literature about grief, suffering, religious violence, and terrible situations here.
A Fine Balance is the interwoven story of four major characters and a handful of secondary characters, all trying to survive in an unnamed city that is almost certainly Mumbai. These characters, a widow trying to live an independent life in the city, a college student who pines for his home and life in a Himalayan hill station, and two chamaar “untouchable” villagers who have become tailors, all end up living together for a brief time in an apartment in the city against the backdrop of military law.
Mistry is a very good writer, and he creates an engaging storyline that shows the continuous struggles of life in India, whether an internal struggle (as in the case of Maneck), a financial struggle (Dina), or a struggle with roles dictated by tradition (Dina, Ishvar, and Om). The struggles continue in the face of overwhelming bureaucratic apathy, caste warfare, exploitive companions, official corruption, grinding poverty, religious conflict, and common thugs — yet, the continuation of the struggle is fueled by the will to survive, all-too-rare acts of kindness, and the finest gossamer strands of hope.
My only criticism would be that the various plots of the book revolve around a large number of improbable coincidences involving meetings of people. In a country of a billion people, having the same few individuals repeatedly running into one another in disparate locations felt a little forced. Obviously, fiction is fiction, and Mistry is interested in making some strong points about power, corruption, cruelty, and kindness, and by giving us characters we know, the situations gain that much more power. Still, he manages with a remarkably light touch in places (the Sikh cab driver when Maneck returns, for example), where we feel an individual’s plight when we scarcely know a thing about them. This is especially true in contrast to the many appearances and reappearances of Rajaram the hair-collector or the Monkey Man.