A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is set in India in the mid-1970s. When Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and a state of emergency was called upon the country. The book begins in the City by the Sea where Om and Ishvar, tailors from a village, meet Maneck Kohlah, a college student, all on their way to Mrs Dina Dalal’s house for different reasons. Om and Ishvar are hired as tailors by Dina to undertake sewing for an export company while Maneck is her new paying guest. They are the central characters of the book.
Each chapter takes you into the characters’ pasts. Dina came from a Parsi family and was brought up in the city by her kind and generous father who was a doctor and her mother and older brother Nusswan. Unfortunately, hard luck hits the family and Dina is forced to leave school and is under Nusswan’s reign. She manages to escape through marriage to Rustom but once again, life isn’t fair to her. She strives to keep her independence and dignity despite struggling with money for basic necessities like rent and food and clothes. Yet, she ploughs through what life throws at her.
Ishvar and Om (uncle and nephew) belong to the Chamaar caste or the ‘Untouchables’ and their family has been on the receiving end for generations due to the nonsensical caste system that ruled rife in India. Ishvar’s father Dukhi finally snaps due to the unfairness of it all and sends his sons, Ishvar and Narayan, to the nearby town to his friend Ashraf, a tailor, to learn the trade. The upper castes in the village are obviously not happy with Dukhi breaking the norms of Hinduism and the family have to pay for it dearly for generations. However, Ishvar and his nephew Om, eventually set out to the City by the Sea to earn more money before they can go back to the village. However, not all is rosy in the city either, especially with the Emergency and the unfair treatment continues. Through their escapades, they meet other interesting characters such as Shankar, the crippled beggar, Rajaram, the hair-collector, the Monkey-Man. and Beggarmaster.
Maneck is probably the most privileged of the lot. An only child, he is born and brought up in the mountains and is doted on by his parents. Until the change in the cities begins to affect the mountains. Maneck’s parents send him to boarding school and then off to college in the City by the Sea thereby creating a distance between themselves and their son. A gap that only widens the older he grows. However, despite this, he is not an arrogant boy and befriends Om and Ishvar. He believes that everything ends badly, and unfortunately it seems more prominent as he grows older.
Dina automatically mistrusts the tailors as has been taught to her by society. Om too is not fond of her and is hostile. Ishvar plays the peacekeeper. However, slowly and steadily, the relationship blossoms between the four central characters and they do seem like family after a point. Dina forgets what society tells her to do in terms of class barriers and treats the tailors as family. The tailors for thier part are always willing to help…helping Rajaram, Shankar, the Monkey-Man, despite struggling to make ends meet themselves at times. However, things start to go wrong when two beggars are murdered. Who has done it? And will the upper caste brahmins make Dukhi regret his decision? And will Dina manage to live independently?
The book critically looks at the caste system that was so rampant (and still is, though not to this extent) in India. It looks at the hypocrisy of the same. It also questions the state of emergency and its farcical nature. [Funnily enough, I don't remember learning about the Emergency in history at school. I wonder why...] It looks at what a mockery Indira Gandhi made of democracy. And it looks at the massive class difference, the scale of corruption and yet, the goodness of mankind that is struggling. The fine balance that exists is one between hope and hoplessness for all characters. Which ones continue to have hope and which ones succumb to the hopelessnes is for the reader to find out…
There are so many aspects of the book that make you smile…especially where the so-called lower castes or the poorer people help others worse-off. And there are several things that make you feel sad…and leave a hollow feeling. The book has a bitter-sweet ending.
I absolutely love the book and have read it twice. Yes it is a thick book (about 600 pages) but it is an easy read and flows really well. From all Indian authors I have read, Rohinton Mistry remains, by far, my favourite. He tends to have Parsi characters but I don’t find that a problem. A Fine Balance is my favourite book by an Indian author. In this book, Mistry never names the City by the Sea but I suspect it is Bombay. A city where several people around India migrate to with hopes and dreams…and some of whom do not get what they expect.
Highly recommended!!! A page-turner for sure. And after that, I’m sure you are not going to be surprised with my rating: 5
Until next time,