A Fine Balance

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One more book down on the New York Times shortlist of fiction whence they asked their readers to pick "the best book of the past 125 years". Eight to go!

This was a biggie, 603 pages of unlarge type and unwide margins. (In comparison, Charlotte's Web, also on the NYT list, was a lean 184 pages, big type, big margins, and illustrations.) And yet, it grabbed me from page one, interesting and (mostly) sympathetic characters, doing interesting things, having interesting (often unfortunate) things done to them. Alas, it's mostly kind of a downer, but (hey) you know what happened to Charlotte, right?

The four main characters are (1) Dina, a headstrong and independent woman who strives to make a life for herself after her husband dies, without submitting herself to her domineering brother; (2) Ishvar, an untouchable whose entire family is murdered by a mob stirred up by a local thug; except for (3) his hotheaded nephew Omprakash; and (4) Maneck, who's sent by his parents to the big city to get his college degree in refrigeration and air conditioning. There are a bunch of other colorful and mostly miserable supporting characters.

It's mostly set in 1975, the year Prime Minister Indira Gandhi concocted her "State of Emergency"; the "emergency" being that she was about to lose her office and probably go to jail. The resulting crackdown affects the whole country, and trickles down to our characters in various ways. But it's not just despotism that's the problem throughout the book. There's also death, dismemberment, disability, corruption, forced sterilization, grinding poverty, hunger, unsanitary conditions, …

But the WSJ blurbed review on the front cover says that it's "full of wisdom and laughter". And there is humor, albeit mostly sarcastic and often very, very dark. (You see that child on the pole on the book cover? You might laugh, or you could be shocked, when that scene comes up in the book. Might have something to do with the book's title, or a metaphor, or symbolism, or something.)

All in all, I couldn't help but wonder if the take-home point was "Hey, maybe the Brits should have stayed in charge here for a few more decades." Things might not have been better, but it's hard to see how they could have been worse.

Last Modified 2024-01-17 9:31 AM EDT