Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Philosophy at University College London. He is the author of Robert Nozick (1991), An Introduction to Political Philosophy (1996 and 2006), Why Read Marx Today? (2002) and, with Avner de-Shalit, Disadvantage (2007). He also writes a monthly column for Education Guardian. Below Jonathan discusses Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.
Jonathan Wolff on A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
A few years ago we downsized from a four-bedroom house, in which two of the bedrooms were in effect book storerooms, to a two-bedroom flat which had no bookshelves at all. We had a plan to cover one large wall with shelves, but decided that the room looked much better with white walls and mirrors than it would with the gloom of books. So we still have no shelves. Of the books not in my office, half were given away, the other half are in boxes in a lock-up. Consequently, new works of fiction, once read, are given to friends or charity.
There are, though, a few I have not been able to part with. One is Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. I chanced on this by accident, having first read Mistry's Family Matters, after it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. On the whole, in my view, the Booker judges normally do a reasonably good job (as long as one forgives them D.B.C. Pierre's Vernon God Little), and I thought that it was about time I read a West Indian writer. Well, his name sounded West Indian to me. I was wrong about that, but it was a fortunate mistake. Mistry is of Indian descent and gifted with the ability to write about people, places and personal relations like a miniaturist painter. There is a type of accuracy and insight about his writing that astonished me. He is especially adept at depicting anxiety, large and small.
A year or two later I picked up A Fine Balance. I had not heard of it, and was a bit daunted by its size – over 600 closely printed pages – but I thought it worth a go. I was immediately drawn in. It had the same skilful writing of Family Matters, but written on a huge, epic, scale. It is almost as much a work of sociology as of literature, or at least it functioned this way for me, given that my knowledge of India is largely derived from the Sunday supplements rather than any real study. And so while receiving an education on Indian religious conflict and tolerance, the caste system, the weakness and corruption of the political system, the state of emergency, semi-civilizing effect of trade and commerce (semi because other sources of conflict break through), brutal population policy and the contrast between Indian city and village, I also found myself caught up in the emotions, hopes and fears of characters trapped together in a system with, apparently, no firm ground.
The book is called A Fine Balance to reflect, I believe, the vulnerability of the life in India in the latter half of the 20th century, where it was possible to achieve a level of decency, sometimes even prosperity, but everything is utterly contingent. The wrong word to the wrong person, and a lifeline can be cut off. One might survive through bonded labour to, and hence the patronage of, the local strongman, but what happens if he dies? The balance shifts, a debt cannot be paid back, and everything is lost. The work is Dickensian in its scope and social concern, but somehow avoids Dickens's sentimentality.
I read the book at a time when I was working on the idea of disadvantage and, in particular, exploring the idea that what makes a life go well is not merely the level of functioning one is able to achieve, but how well one is able to sustain it over time. A Fine Balance is a study in what can be called 'insecure functionings'. I was interested to find out that others who work on social equality, such as Debra Satz, also admire the book. Indeed Elizabeth Anderson includes a discussion of it in a very recent paper published in the Supplementary Volume of the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society this year.
Is it a masterpiece? There are, in my view, some flaws. There is an unconvincing, yet pivotal, plot twist. The ending is unsatisfactory. Yet, I have recommended it to many others and no one has been disappointed. And I should say that I do not make recommendations lightly. After all, a book like this one will take many hours to read. It is the height of irresponsibility to recommend long books that fall short of excellence.
Having not heard of the book before reading it, I treated it as a private discovery. This was something of a mistake; at the time of writing there are more than 500 reader reviews on Amazon.com. The reason for this, as US readers may know, is that A Fine Balance had been selected early on by Oprah for her book club. I have been an admirer of Oprah's taste in books ever since an episode in, I think, Austin Texas when I had foolishly run out of reading material before my flight home. At the airport bookstand, alongside the cowboy stories, and books about snakes, there was a shelf of Oprah's recommendations. So I picked up Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. This is another of those rare books I will recommend to (almost) anyone. But A Fine Balance is in a league above, in my opinion.