a fine balance

This must be the fifth novel I’ve read in as many years. I’m no judge of what a good novel is, I don’t read much into the themes, the imagery, the character flaws, I just mainly read the story and I also write a lot of run on sentences. So it’s mainly about the story and how I relate to the characters.

After having seen Pinjar, which is a fabulous film that you should watch, I’ve wanted to write a story/screenplay that was similar in nature. The movie starts off all happy, gets depressing, and then gets more depressing, and then when you think it couldn’t get more depressing, it gets more depressing. Generally stories or movies that do this are done very poorly, with poorly concocted and forced situations that don’t really fit into the plot. Pinjar did it all extremely well. I wanted to write something that was more in “our time”. Clearly I haven’t done this, I must have seen the movie back in 2004 sometime.

So then I start reading ‘A Fine Balance’, Oprah book club sticker and all. I wonder why that bothers people so much. Is Oprah not allowed to like a good book?

‘A Fine Balance’, between hope and despair, it said. Although I’m a bit lost here, it seems the main characters experience hope in bursts and despair in continuity. Even the cursory characters go through similar despair: Monkey-man, the rent collecter, Avinash, etc. Maybe the balancing factor is that Rajaram finally figured his true-calling as Bal Baba, Vishram becomes a large restaurant. And that Ruby finally gets to use her club membership, can’t let that money go to waste.

I got to about page 610 and thought to myself, “Yeah, I could write a more depressing story than this”. Then around page 650 I conceded, “Mistry, you win. I can’t write a story more depressing than this”. This was around the time Ashraf Chacha dies, Om gets castrated and Ishvar loses his legs.

I loved the book, it’s the type of story I like to read. There are moments in the book where your eyes want to turn the pages faster than your fingers can. I had similar moments when reading The Kite Runner. But in the Kite Runner certain portions had too much detail or what I like to call “paper real estate”. While similar situations in A Fine Balance took up less real state, leaving your imagination to fill the gaps. For instance, the fight between Assef and Amir lasts forever (the Kite Runner), while the execution of Narayan happens fairly swiftly (A Fine Balance).

But in The Kite Runner you have instances like Amir meeting a beggar in Afghanistan that happened to have worked with his mother (what a coincidence), and then shortly thereafter discovers that the Taliban person who has Hassan’s son is Assef (what a coincidence!). While the coincidences in A Fine Balance seem more natural; Dina running into Vasantrao Valmik at the court house and then later Maneck running into him again while he’s Bal Baba’s assistance. I liked the Kite Runner too, I enjoyed reading it, all the coincidences aside, the way the book was written was something else.

At some point through the story (A Fine Balance) I thought this was Om’s story. Because so much happens around his character and the stories of Dukhi, Narayan and Ishvar all lead up to Om. But he doesn’t get too much ‘real estate’ toward the end of the book. Dina’s character goes through massive transformations all through out the book, and I’m not sure what to make of Maneck yet. There is a balance in real estate amongst the main characters. Some die and the others find no particular reason to, so they live.

In the Kite Runner I had a particular favourite moment, where Hassan’s son (during the fight mentioned earlier) holds up his sling shot aimed at Assef’s eye. As if the whole thing was written and setup for that one moment. I don’t know if I have any such moments in A Fine Balance. What I connect with in A Fine Balance other than moments are the items. Like the name plate, the violin, the umbrella, the Singers, the chess set, Shankar’s ghaadi, the lawyer’s pens, etc (note that I purposely left out the patched quilt). But if I had to pick a moment, it would be when Ashraf Chacha’s board is modified to “Krishna Tailors” and the mob comes to effectively burn the place and Ishvar and Narayan are made to pull down their pants to prove they’re not Muslim.

I really liked how the story is woven together (like the quilt!). The items mentioned before and how their stories are revealed along with the characters. We see the name plate early on in the book, and then learn about how it came to be later on in a flash back type section in the book. The story keeps on weaving itself in this manner as past and present come together to make some sort of sense. Kind of like when you pull up a zipper and the parts lock themselves making a whole.

I would like to end by talking about the size of this book. This book is huge! Over 700 pages. I think my wrist is stronger now.

In either case, what this book needs is an “Adnan’s Book Club” sticker.

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