A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

This book is one of those modern classics that had not been on my radar before. Rohinton Mistry is an acknowledged master of storytelling and has presented a story of the slum class and working class of India at the time of Partition and up until the Emergency that will not let you go. As heartbreaking and pathetic as the lives of the characters are, their optimism and perserverance inspire and uplift. If there was ever a story that firmly sets into perspective “1st world problems,” this is the one.

Two minor characters that stand out are the Beggarmaster and the beggar Shankar. Shankar must have been aware of the cause of his crippled condition, yet he never railed against his fate, but accepted his station in life and ministered to others. It wasn’t his plasticity that impressed me, but how this character represented so many in India and how the Beggarmaster also represented another strata of society that oppressed the beggars and seemed so powerful to the beggars and even the working class. Life was full of larger than life figures and insurmountable odds such as caste and poverty, which even the powerful were powerless to overcome.

The balance between comfort and abject poverty was very precarious. One careless decision and one was thrown into an abyss from which the possibility of escape was hopeless. The immutability of caste barriers, while it should be soul crushing, did not discourage Ishvar. The name Ishvar is reportedly a common one in India and means “supreme lord” or “supreme soul.” Ishvar was the untouchable who constantly lifted up his nephew Om’s spirits, and advised Dina Dilal and Maneck, although they were “above” him in the hierarchy of the Indian caste system. He was trained by and beloved of his Muslim friend and father figure, Ashraf Chacha. His love was all encompassing and represents selfless love and forgiveness.

Those who loved the non fiction “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers” will adore this book and I found myself comparing it with Jumpha Lahiri’s latest which also covered a time of political upheaval in India. I can’t resist comparing it with the best of Charles Dickens, and although I often say that Dickens is my favorite author, Mistry has made this world so real, so tangible to me, that he soars above Dickens.

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