A Fine Balance

Finally, a book I could immerse myself in and swim around for hundreds of pages, lapping up quirky characters in very real, richly textured stories. A look inside multiple families in India in 1975, during the state-declared Emergency that sweeps through ghettos and tears down illegal housing, along with forced sterilization camps. It’s fairly difficult to sum this up, 600 pages of swirling words, patched together like Dina’s quilt. Currently this is sitting at the top of my list of reads for 2012.
Fresh from the mountains descends Maneck, headed for refrigeration college in a world generally unrefrigerated and thus going bad. His father runs a general store with a secret family recipe for cola that gets swept out of business when advertising money flows in for the big cola players. Maneck shares a train ride with proofreader turned lawyer, Vasantrao Valmik, who at the end of the book invites Maneck to share his story with him the next day (alas too late).

Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.

Maneck becomes a paid boarder in a widow’s apartment, Dina, who is a seamstress who hires two tailors to run a “factory” inside her apartment. Ishvar and Om encounter many difficulties throughout the story, from the slaying of their entire family, to protecting the Muslim tailor, having their house razed, sleeping on the street, rounded up for forced labor camp.
Beggarmaster saves Ishvar and Om from the forced labor camp once he finds they have befriended Shankar, the crippled beggar who he has a soft spot for (and finds they are half-brothers, later). Beggarmaster ends up protecting Dina’s flat from her landlord until he is killed by Monkey-Man whose niece/nephew Beggarmaster has maimed for the begging trade.
Ishvar and Om’s final trip back to their village to find Om a wife ends tragically after forced sterilization and further brutality at the hands of his father’s murderer.