1995, Books, Fiction

A Fine Balance (1995) by Rohinton Mistry

Every day, but especially days in December, I see someone in Canada or the US on Facebook or YouTube or Twitter who is complaining about how awful our world is. If it’s not an individual, it’s an article or other post about something terrible happening. And this really drives me crazy because I know that based on human development standards there has never been a better time to be alive.

Every December I share proof of this, actual evidence that has been collected to show that indeed there has never been a better time to be a human being. (When I’m really frustrated, I share it in other months as well.) But it makes little to no impression on the people I know. They all complain about how awful 2016 and 2017 were, blah blah blah. Maybe I should get them to read this novel. Maybe that would knock some sense in to them.

Fair warning: this is not light reading.

SPOILERS

I am so unbelievably lucky to have been born in 1981 in Toronto to a middle class family. I am lucky to be “white” and I am lucky to be male. I have had no real problems in my life. I think I have had many problems, but that is the nature of human existence: my subjective experience is full of highs and lows, even when it isn’t. Sometimes I forget I’m so lucky. But then I read something like this and I realize: I have my legs, I have my balls, I have my parents, I have my family, I have my girlfriend, I am do not suffer from depression. Sometimes we need art to remind us that life has been awful and continues to be awful for so many people. But, caught up in what we think are big problems, we not only forget how lucky we are, and how unlucky so many millions (billions?) of others have been, we also forget empathy for them. So often, us privileged people – privileged because of luck – decide that those who suffer deserve their suffering. It takes a novel like this to remind us that this belief is bullshit.

This a devastating novel. It has been aged since I have been truly reminded of the suffering in the world through a novel and I am not sure I have ever read a novel with this much suffering. (I may have, but I can’t remember.) That’s not to say the novel is just a parade of suffering, but rather that the amount of suffering is shocking enough to knock you out of your complacent depression about your own life. Though very sad, the novel is also a reminder of how attitude is everything and certainly all of us who are not beggars with no legs should have more positive attitudes about life.

Suffering is certainly the dominant theme, if you are not paying attention. But I think the real message – the message in the title – is that it takes a sense of balance to and perspective to get through life, no matter the degree of suffering. Maneck’s life is so much better than Om’s and Ishvar’s, yet he is the one who is unable to continue. There’s a lot of truth to that, which I feel like I see even in a rich country like the one I live in. The world is what we make of it and we all need to learn how to cope with the world – the world certainly doesn’t need to (and won’t) adapt to us.

In addition to feeling lucky, I also feel like I have experienced a whole new world I didn’t really know. I’ve never been to India, never studied the country and know basically nothing of it. But this novel really felt like it gave me a portrait of a country that has been under-represented in my education and in the news. I want to read a history of India, now, so I can learn more about this place which I had no knowledge of. But this novel is a good start, especially given the perspective of the lower castes.

Overall, this is hard going but I think it’s very worthwhile. I certainly have never read anything like it before. And, despite its endless suffering, it makes me glad to be alive.

9/10

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