Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

The First Friday library book group will meet this Friday, December 5, at 10:30 a.m. to discuss A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, which is set in a certain unnamed seaside city in India (surely Mumbai, Mistry's hometown) during the Emergency in the mid 1970s. A Fine Balance begins on a train, with a student and two tailors colliding when the train comes to a unexpected halt. It turns out they are heading for the same apartment, where the poor widow who lives there rents a room to the student and hires the tailors. (The book ends with a train, too, bringing the story full circle.)

This 600-page tale of hill stations and slums, beggars and beggarmasters, hair collectors and government "motivators," monkeymen, untouchables and Brahmins, exporters and tailors, policemen and soda bottlers, is an epic. At one point the cook at the Vishram restaurant whom the tailors relate their stories to at tea every day says, "If all our customers were like you, we would be able to produce a modern Mahabharat - the Vishram edition." (The Mahabharata is an ancient Sanskrit epic poem seven times the length of the combined The Iliad and the Odyssey, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Like his character Kohlah, Rohinton Mistry is a Parsi (although this book seems to have a character for every religion in India - Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs as well). He left India shortly after the Emergency began, for Canada. There was a interesting kerfuffle between Rohinton Mistry and Germaine Greer after A Fine Balance was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1996. (Greer said that it was a Canadian book about India.)

There are two sets of discussion questions, which you can find on Oprah's site (it was one of her book club's selections) and on the Borders UK site.

Interviews with Rohinton Mistry have been posted online by the Asia Society, Knight-Ridder newspapers and Oprah.

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