Blasts from the Past: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I know I bang on a lot about book jackets but I can’t talk about A Fine Balance without commenting on its wonderful cover which has been the same for as long as I can remember, certainly since I was recommending it as a bookseller. I’ve no idea if it’s faked or not but it’s superb. The book’s contents are pretty stunning too.

Determined to keep her independence after the sudden death of her husband, Dina sets up as a seamstress. As her eyes begin to fail she recruits two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, supplementing her meagre income by taking in a student as a paying guest. What begins as an economic necessity becomes an arrangement between friends, each wrestling with their own demons. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart. Through a cast of vividly drawn characters and with great wit and humanity, A Fine Balance explores the effects of the State of Emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India.

Hard to write about this book and not describe it as Dickensian, a comparison which many critics drew when it was published. Tolstoy also sprang to reviewers’ minds but Mistry claimed not to be drawn to either of these preferring Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Updike.

As far as I know Mistry has only published three novels – Family Matters came out in 2002 and there’s been nothing since. Sixteen years is a long time between books and I’m beginning to think that it may be time to give up hope.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

24 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)”

  1. I read Family Matters earlier this year on Ella Berthoud’s recommendation and enjoyed it very much. I have a copy of A Fine Balance and look forward to reading it. Thanks for always whetting my appetite with these posts.

  2. One of the purposes of my book buying ban is to get to the books on the TBR that have been there forever – this is one of them! It sounds a good winter read so I’ll aim to get to it before the year is out 🙂

  3. We read this in one of my reading groups at a September meeting. I remember that fact because it came hard on the heels of the Summer School and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get through such a mammoth book. As it turned out it is such a page turner that there was no problem. I had already read Family Matters, which I thought was superb but found hard going because I was dealing with similar issues myself so I then incorporated Such A Long Journey into a later Summer School. And now, as you say, we wait. I do hope it isn’t in vain.

    1. I share your wariness of massive tomes but it sped by, didn’t it. I’ve yet to read Family Matters, mostly because I’m worried it won’t live up to A Fine Balance but my partner assures me it’s just as good.

  4. This is still in my top 3 faves of all time and I still bang on about it at any given opportunity. I think I have made everyone I know read it, so maybe it’s time to meet some new people and carry on spreading the word. (I’m also a nightmare if you happen to mention Angle of Repose or So long See you Tomorrow….)

  5. Oh I loved this novel too, so good to have a reminder of it. I too have recommended it to so many people. I read it years ago but it remains so memorable. I learnt a lot about Indian politics of the 1970s and it shocked me. A few years ago, there was a theatre adaptation of A Fine Balance at the Birmingham Rep, it was good. I have read all three of Mistry’s novels and his short story collection, Tales from Firosha Baag which is wonderful too. One day I will read them all again.

  6. I have had this sitting on the table beside the sofa for weeks now, but haven’t got round to starting it yet. To be honest, the size has been putting me off, but you’ve nudged me to start it!

  7. As you know this is one of my all time favourite books – time to read it again I think. Think I have given up hope for a new book though.

  8. I’m sure when I started to read this, if someone had told me that I would want to reread it on finishing, I’d’ve thought them all-kinds-of-wrong, but it is just so good that length is not a factor. Besides the short stories that Ali has mentioned, there is a novella as well, The Scream, but I have the idea that he is not intending to publish again (which is not the same as not writing, of course, though it feels the same for readers). Hopefully I misheard.

    1. I’ll look out for The Scream. Possibly not published here. You’re absolutely right, size is not an issue give the book’s page-turning pace and engrossing story. I do hope you’re wrong about nothing in the publishing pipeline but I suspect not.

  9. I read this quite a while ago now, but it’s one of those books that’s hard to forget. (Unlike many others.)
    Funny – I had never wondered about the cover before – how interesting! And sad.

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