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Time and Reliability—Reflecting on “A Fine Balance”

I’ve just finished Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance this week and thought I would post a few thoughts provoked along the way (the book was highly recommended independently by two trusted friends so I was able to overcome my customary aversion to reading anything from “Oprah’s Book Club”).  The book is brilliantly written—a really well told story in every way, one that presents you with the full spectrum human experience from the most abject misery and suffering to the heights of joy.

Mistry masterfully weaves together the lives of four very different people in 1970’s India during the “State of Internal Emergency” where human lives are, as is so tragically often the case, deemed dispensable to a political agenda.  A young widow, two Chamaar caste members turned tailors, and a Parsi college student end up forging a life together in a city racked by violence, political instability, sub-human living conditions, and extreme poverty.  All four are outsiders in one way or another, but together they recover their dignity and humanity, and learn how to transcend lines of caste, gender, religion, and race.  It is a moving story—a compelling picture of how human beings can rise above the horrific conditions of their material circumstances.

One of the most beautiful parts of the book was when, through a series of bizarre circumstances, a limbless beggar ends up receiving a funeral procession worthy of royalty.  The city is brought to a halt by a procession of blind, deaf, diseased, impoverished, and seemingly hopeless creatures making their way to honour a `life` that most of us would not consider worthy of the name.  It is a gospel picture of the last becoming first, the `least of these` teaching the privileged about what it means to be human.

Like so many good stories, though, A Fine Balance, is a profoundly tragic one which leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of sadness at the way the world is and the appalling evil that is the experience of so many.  Moments of joy, moments where the evils of life do not choke out its pleasures and possibilities are far too infrequent.  Throughout the book, Maneck (the college student) rehearses the mantra, “In the end, things end badly” and this is certainly the case in Mistry’s tale.  Time steals away the best moments, consigning their inhabitants to what fleeting moments of goodness can be salvaged by memory.  Life is harsh and brutal, and in the end, time takes even this away.  One of the more memorable passages for me was this one from the mouth of Ashraf, the Muslim tailor:

What an unreliable thing is time—when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue.  And what a changeable thing, too.  Time is the twine to tie our lives into the parcels of years and months.  Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy.  Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl’s hair.  Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair…. But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly.

I suspect that all of us—even those of us whose experience is light years away from the misery Mistry describes—feel this way at times.  We move through our days knowing that things are always in the process of slipping away.  Whether it is our physical or mental capacities or our relationships with loved ones, we know that nothing is permanent.  We know that life offers no guarantees, that whatever security and goodness we may be currently experiencing can easily slip away.  While the reverse is also true—sorrow in the present may yet be turned to good—the final word on our lives is, apparently, pain and loss.  We all die.  Time is a harsh and unreliable taskmaster indeed.

If I were asked if A Fine Balance was a hopeful book, I would probably say no.  Mistry does portray the human capacity to not be defined by suffering, to `humanize`an inhuman world in a truly admirable way, but in the end, the last word is loss.  We make what we can out of the contexts we`re placed in, but beyond this there is not much that can be hoped for.  Life, like time, is unreliable, it seems, and the best we can do is cope.

But coping isn`t enough for us.  Reading the book through Christian eyes I returned often to the comprehensive scope of the hope of the gospel.  Nothing good will be lost—this is the hope to which we bear witness.  The only solution for a world as unreliable as ours is the promise of God who is more reliable than life.  Only such a God can reclaim the time that we are given, and change it from an apparently meaningless string of loosely connected events and experiences from which we extract what minimal pleasure we can into a tale of redemption.  Only a reliable God can transform and redeem time itself, so that it is no longer a noose around our necks but a gift.  Time seems a strange and terrifying gift at times, but it is a precious one nonetheless for our God comes to us in time and it is in time that we respond to grace, to his beckoning toward a future when all things—including time—are made new.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    The cultural reality of the West, which has largely turned away from Christianity, now presents us with an impossible challenge: it tells us to be optimistic, and yet it tells us that the end is not joy, but loss. It provides no basis for hope.

    Nietzsche explored this problem to some extent in The Birth of Tragedy. Eliade called it the terror of history.

    I have not read the book you reviewed here, but from what you have written I have the impression that it presents a narrative that is not too different from that offered by the writers you analyzed in your thesis.

    I think it is hard in our time for people to have hope, even if they know the Christian narrative. The darker cultural narrative has so much power of us. A line that Thomas Merton wrote stands out in my memory because it seems to express the challenge so simply: it is hard for us to believe we are loved, even by God.

    Your reassurance here that we are loved is so important.

    July 10, 2008
  2. I think your diagnosis of our cultural moment is a good one Ken. To have hope we need to believe that we matter, that we are loved, that all does not end in loss. As I see it, people cannot do without hope – the only question has to do with the parameters within which our hopes are conceptualized.

    July 10, 2008
  3. Ken,
    I can’t speak for all those who find it too difficult to believe in a supernatural afterlife (or even pay attention to its possibility), but I still find the subject intriguing.

    There certainly is no joy in losing a loved one. But what do you think about the possibility of ourselves never losing the joy of living, because we never experience the complete loss of our lives, only others do?

    Also, you mentioned a “narrative” having power over (I assume you meant ‘over’) us. Which makes me wonder another thing – would there be a “narrative” if there was no one to contemplate history? I’m not saying there is no value to be gained from making a narrative out of historical or fictional events. I’m just questioning the limits of its use or power.

    Ryan, it’s been awhile. I hope you’re having a great time enjoying a summer without a thesis hanging over your head!

    After reading your post, I wondered if you’ve thought about the possibility of God dying. I know you don’t believe He can or will die. But I was wondering if you thought it was logically possible.

    People say that God Himself has said that He is without end. But I wonder – how does God know that? How could God be capable of knowing His death? Or that He wouldn’t die?


    July 14, 2008
  4. Ken #

    I think what many people experience is separateness. We grieve the deaths of others and we grieve, in advance, our own deaths. We don’t want to leave the ones we love behind. We don’t want to leave our lives behind, unfinished. I have known people who have lost the joy of living and welcomed death, have wanted to die, because they saw in death an end to their suffering, and an opportunity in death to end their separateness.

    In referring to the power the cultural narrative has over us I was only referring to the difficulty so many of us have believing in God, believing we are loved, believing life has meaning beyond what we make ourselves, and having hope.

    I don’t recall anyone writing about the death of God in a literal sense (in the West, anyway.) I have only seen that expression used in a metaphorical sense referring to the loss of faith in the West. I think it became the metaphor because the loss of faith was accompanied by grief that felt something like the grief we feel when someone we love dies. I think Thomas Hardy’s poem, God’s Funeral, beautifully expresses the metaphor and the associated feelings. Matthew Arnold’s poem, Dover Beach, is another lament that expresses the grief that accompanies the modern consciousness or narrative that has so much power over us.

    July 14, 2008
  5. Hi Jerry,

    Re: God dying, I would echo Ken’s assertion that talk of God “death” is usually metaphorical in character. It usually reflects something about how things feel from our perspective rather than being a metaphysical claim of some kind.

    I don’t know if it would be logically possible for God to die or how God could know he would not die – I suppose questions like these depend on what kind of a God we’re talking about, the properties he possesses, etc. From my perspective, any conception of God worthy of the name would be an eternal God. A God who does not stand above death and who cannot defeat it is not a God that I would be terribly interested in.

    July 15, 2008

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