A Fine Balance

I just finished reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It’s one of those books where you think “oh wow, could anything else possibly go wrong?” and just when you think that, an absolutely crazy-gruesome-morbid-horrible thing happens to the characters! The last such book I read was A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The difference though was that Hosseini’s book was horribly depressing, while A Fine Balance somehow leaves you entertained. That’s where I think the skill of the writer comes in. Either that or I’ve developed a morbid sense of humour and a very thick skin over the years.

Set in India over a few decades (mostly the 70s), the book looks at the lives of four characters. Two Parsees: Dina Dalal, a widow struggling to be financially independent by supplying garments to an export textile company; and Manek Kohlah, a young college student who comes to live with her as a paying guest. The other main characters are the uncle and nephew duo Ishvar and Om. They are tailors who come to work for Dina. They belong to a lower caste Chamaar family who dare to tempt fate by trying to change their family’s destiny by switching their profession: from leatherwork considered ‘polluting’ to the more respectable clothes tailoring.

The book chronicles how the lives of these four individuals get intertwined and then torn apart in the shadow of caste violence, poverty, political instability and complex family relationships.

Mistry is a gifted writer and A Fine Balance is an ‘enjoyable’ read even though it drags at points and all the tragedy somehow becomes comic after a while as you start expecting it rather than being shocked by it.

The Inheritance of Loss

I just read The Inheritance of Loss and really enjoyed it. Wanted to read it for a while, but was put off by a bad review from a friend who said it was overrated and depressing. I finally picked up my dust-gathering copy last week when a friend highly recommended it.

The Review

The novel is set in the 1980s in a town called Kalimpong in the foothills of the Himalayas near the India-Nepal border. The political backdrop of the book is an insurgency led by socially and economically disenfranchised Nepali immigrants. In fact, immigration is a big theme in the book (both immigration in India and from India to the US). Desai also explores themes of globalization, multicultralism and nationalism, class inequality and racism through the novel’s various characters. However, what really comes across as the one strand running through every story, as can be gleaned from the title, is a sense of longing and loss.

Sai, a sixteen year old orphan who lives in Kalimpong with her embittered grandfather, falls in love with her young Nepali tutor Gyan. It’s a short-lived romance as political chaos takes over their lives. Sai is an immature and self-obsessed girl who has lived an isolated and sheltered life with a very small circle of adults and no real friends her age. Personally, I found her really annoying and couldn’t empathize with her.

Sai’s grandfather Jemubhai Patel, ‘the judge’, was a much more complex and interesting character who simultaneously invoked feelings of sympathy and revulsion. Desai mentioned in an interview that the judge’s story was influenced by her own grandfather who, like Jemubhai, also joined the Indian Civil Service at the time of the British Raj (but was not such a horrible person as the judge in the book). Belonging to a village in Gujarat, by virtue of his brilliance, family sacrifices and a very rich father-in-law, Jemubhai managed to go to Cambridge in the 1930s when very few Indians got that privilege. His experience in racist colonial England and a desire to fit in with the ‘goras’ leaves him with such a strong sense of shame and an inferiority complex that for the rest of his life he takes it out on every non-westernized Indian around him, especially his young wife. To become accepted and gain respect from his English peers and superiors, he becomes a recluse; renounces his roots and even his own family to lead a secular and modern life. He has an illustrious career in the ICS, but in the present when the orphan Sai comes to live with him, he is surviving on a small pension in Kalimpong with only a loyal cook to serve him and his beloved dog Mutt, the sole living being he ever loves.

The book’s narrative takes you between Kalimpong and Manhattan where the cook’s son Biju is living as an illegal immigrant and keeps flitting between various cheap restaurants as a waiter. He’s barely making ends meet, lives in squalid rat-infested basements with other illegal immigrants and generally feels uprooted. Biju’s strongest desire is for him to make something of himself to please his father who has sacrificed a lot to get him to America. However, unable to compromise his principles and give up his identity, he’s never really able to live the American dream. In an interview, Desai remarked about the ‘myth’ of the American dream, “some people do seem to live the American dream, but you wonder whether if some people are living it because others are not”.

Yes, the stories are overall quite sad and perhaps even tragic, but for some reason you’re not left depressed reading them. Despite the book’s heavy and political themes, it still doesn’t seem overbearing and has a lightness of touch. While describing scenes of revolution, violent protests and torture, Desai also mentions people’s mundane preoccupations, especially of the small westernized group through whose eyes the narrative unfolds. They are worried about their broccoli patches, celebrate Christmas and make trips to the Gymkhana library to get their English books while others are protesting and curfews are being imposed. Especially, Lola and Noni, two anglicized middle-aged sisters who home tutored Sai, bring comedy and levity to the book in the midst of chaos. They are Indians who in some ways don’t really belong to India: they speak English and love everything English, from books and food to their Marks and Spencer undergarments. Their self-obsessed view of the world in some ways seems ridiculous and is reviled by the lower class Nepalis who think of them as confused and out-of-touch with reality.

Behind The Scenes: Kiran Desai

I’m usually really interested to find out more about an author and the writing process of a book after I’ve read it. While we all know Kiran is Anita Desai’s daughter, I had no idea she was Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s partner. In interviews, Desai is very eloquent and has a very humble and soft-spoken tone, but her accent intrigues me. It is neither Indian nor American (where she has lived for almost 20 years). Perhaps she has resisted picking up an American accent as she resisted getting an American citizenship.

I found a very interesting interview in which Kiran Desai gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her novel which took almost 8 years to write! We always look at books as finished products and as readers the books to us are what they are and couldn’t have been any other way. But when you hear an author talk about how they wrote their book, you realize that the book could have ended up as many other things. The characters could have behaved in different ways and the ending could have been different (Desai admits that the original ending she wrote was much more tragic and melodramatic than the one she finally opted for).

Desai also talks about the writing process as never being linear or planned. In response to John Mullan’s obsevation that the book has very short chapters and each chapter is further divided into lots of sections, Desai says it wasn’t deliberate. In fact it evolved as a literary necessity perhaps because she wrote in so many different directions and on so many different themes that she was left with over 1500 pages of text! And then it was a matter of re-reading everything and finding a common narrative in the midst of a collage of stories and characters. She admits that she never really had a “plot” for the book and just wanted the novel to explore various stories through different places, time periods and characters.

In talking about why it took her so long to write the book she said, “Well, for one thing, I was very happy writing. And I knew it would end as soon as I finished the book. And the book, I think, was also the one stable thing in my life; I took it with me everywhere. I was living all over the place and traveling, so it felt like home, and didn’t want to let go of that blanket in a way. It’s kind of disconcerting to be done with it. But, more importantly, it took me a long while to get to an honest place, a place from which I could write this book. I think immigration is a great con game: you tell yourself lies, you reinvent yourself in many different ways, and to undo all of that took quite a while.”

If the ending seems a bit abrupt, it was intentional for one reason that Desai wanted to leave the story open-ended and not give it a definitive finish, but also partially because she was finally forced to finish the book after 8 years when she had run out of money and everyone around her had given up on the book, except her mother. It must have been a triumphant ‘in-your-face’ moment for her when she won the Man Booker Prize in 2006! I hope we don’t have to wait another 8 years for her next book.