I swore I'd never do it. Buy an Oprah's Book Club book, that is. But someone recommended Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance to me. When I found it at Half Price Books, I almost put it back on the shelf, because it had that dratted giant "O" on the front. But I decided to take a chance on it, and I'm so glad I did.
Let's be upfront about it. The book is, in many ways, absolutely heartbreaking. The story takes place in India in the early 70's--in the midst of revolution. Mrs. Gandhi (never named by name in the whole book) has suspended normal law and procedures during the "National Emergency."
The story revolves around 4 characters--Dina Dalal, a widow; Maneck, a student who rents a room from Dina during a school year; Om and Ishvar, tailors who have come, escaping caste violence in their rural town, to make their way in the big city. The book begins by telling the backstory on all four characters, then blending them together during the year they spend together.
The story is about poverty, about family, about politics. About hopes, dreams, and aspirations. About independence and love, and the cost of both.
Mistry doesn't sugarcoat ANYTHING. The description of life for the poor, the homeless, and the beggars is almost more than I could bear to read. One reviewer I read said that Mistry is realism with a capital "R." I agree.
The writing itself is lovely, and sad beyond words. A small snippet of a minor character, thinking about his wife who died about a year before:
"It's a strange thing. When my Mumtaz was alive, I would sit alone all day, sewing or reading. And she would be by herself in the back, busy cooking and cleaning and praying. But there was no loneliness, the days passed easily. Just knowing she was there was enough. And now I miss her so much. What an unreliable thing is time--when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy. Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl's hair. Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair." He sighed and smiled sadly. "But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly."
A Fine Balance is not an easy book to read. There are times in my life where it would have been exactly the WRONG thing to read. But it is good. Very, very, VERY good.