A Fine Balance
First Sentence: The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed.
I was given a copy of this book on World Book Night earlier this year. A lot of people who like the same sort of books I like have been raving about it and I’ve always meant to read it, so after I got a free copy I felt the time was right. This is a BIG book, primarily concerned with the lives of Dina Dalal who sets up a sewing factory in her rented flat, Omprakash and Ishvar Darji; an uncle and nephew tailor team trying to get by, and Maneck Kohlah; a university student from a small village who comes to the ‘city by the sea’ to study refrigeration. These four lives are about to intersect with each other in increasingly life-altering ways. Set in the 1970′s during a time of political turmoil after a state of ‘Emergency’ has been declared by the government, this is really a novel about India itself, and in that way I think it succeeds admirably. This book, like India, has everything; colour, joy, poverty, hope, love, passion, tragedy, violence and laughter, and even though it is a long book it never feels too long, each page being a pleasure to read. It put me in mind of the parts I enjoyed most in Shantaram, and unlike that book it didn’t feel like it should have been about half the length. Above all else though this book seems to be about our ability to endure and to keep going on in the face of the most horrific adversity, which is summed up nicely in one brief snippet: “How was it that his heart kept beating instead of bursting, his sanity intact instead of shattered like a dropped mirror?”. Surely all this misery piled on misery must reach breaking point at some stage? Can anything stay balanced forever in a world where no pain is ever really forgotten?
[...] nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.
For Dina, Ishvar, Omprakash and Maneck, life will never be the same again after fate throws them together one day in 1970′s India…
* * * *
Last Sentence: Then she dried her hands and decided to take a nap before starting the evening meal.
Last Sentence explained: And as you can tell from the last sentence, Dina is still around and trying to get by at the end of the book, though things have changed considerably, and the same can not be said for the rest of them! When Ishvar and Omprakash return to their home village, trouble is never far away. They both undergo a forced vasectomy and as a result Ishvar loses his legs through infection. Omprakash ends up being castrated by Thakur, an old family enemy who killed his father several years earlier. As for Maneck, ultimately he ends up throwing himself in front of a moving train after going to work in Dubai for a number of years and, returning to India, finds out his friends have become destitute. It seems a major theme in the book is survival and how we get through each day: “Where humans were concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure; and sorrow, for the hopelessness of it all.” For Maneck, he used to believe in God but things change near the end. When Dina asks him if he still believes in God he replies:
I used to. But now I prefer to think that God is a giant quiltmaker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt has grown so big and confusing, the pattern impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.
This quilt metaphor is pervasive, as Dina herself is making a giant quilt throughout the book from scraps of material left over from her sewing contracts. Each square represents a chapter in their lives together. In one of the more moving scenes in the book, when Maneck returns to India and encounters Ishvar and Om, Ishvar is being wheeled around on a trolley by Om and on this trolley is that very quilt, dirty and tattered now, cushioning the stumps where his legs once were. Confronted with this scene, Maneck cannot even acknowledge he knows these two people and not long afterward he kills himself. Maneck himself, the student of refrigeration, is already having difficulty surviving day-to-day, and finds it hard to see any good in the world.
Did life treat everyone so wantonly, ripping the good things to pieces while letting bad things fester and grow like fungus on unrefrigerated food?
Before, finally, he comes to the conclusion that: “[...] it was an unrefrigerated world. And everything ended badly.” The only way he can see out is to end it all: “Time, the ultimate grandmaster that could never be checkmated. There was no way out of its distended belly. He wanted to destroy the loathsome creature.”, and in his own way, he did. There is still some hope however as we are told that all these lives, all this suffering and love, all of India with everyone included, is more important as a whole, than as a series of separate, unconnected incidents.
So that’s the rule to remember, the whole quilt is much more important than any single square.
Random quotes from the book:
“The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously,like a soap bubble at its limit.”
“What should have been the occasional spice to vary the regular menu had become the main course, leaving the appetite often confused or unfulfilled.”
“The kettle blurted its readiness with a healthy spout of steam.”
“Your gesture will be a bucket falling in a well deeper than centuries. The splash won’t be seen or heard.”
“She envisioned two leaky faucets: one said Money, the other, Sanity. And both were dripping away simultaneously.”
“A foreigner drew a magic line on a map and called it the new border; it became a river of blood upon the earth. And the orchards, fields, factories, businesses, all on the wrong side of that line, vanished with a wave of the pale conjuror’s hand.”
“On windy nights the garments danced on the wire, friendly, funambulating ghosts.”