A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is set in an unnamed city of India during the period of The Emergency (1975 – 1976). This is the first novel by Rohinton Mistry that I have read. It is a long novel and complicated in terms of its plot, so I don’t think I will be able to summarize it here properly. I’ll try my best to explain the story.
The story focuses on four main characters – Dina, Ishwar, and Omprakash, who are uncle and nephew, and Maneck. The four characters come from different social settings. Dina was born in a well-to-do family, but after her father’s death, her older mother took her in because her mother was unable to provide for her. Dina’s older brother mistreated her regularly treating her like a burden. She rebels against him when she marries Rustom Dalal and they are happy together until Rustom dies in a car crash three years later.
Dina is determined and spirited enough to fight against the odds. This time she doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone and make her own way by starting her tailoring business. Ishwar and Omprakash are the tailors Dina hires to work for since her eyesight isn’t the best. Ishwar and Omprakash have fled their village to escape from caste violence against them. They want a fresh start in the city, and they get jobs as tailors for Dina. Surprisingly, they meet Maneck, a student from an idyllic hill station who rents a room as a boarder at Dina’s house later on. Maneck’s friend disappeared without a trace which still weighs on him and is the reason he moves away from his college campus housing. Their lives converge with each other, and in times of unrest, they form a solid understanding among each other.
A Fine Balance can’t exactly be classified as a political novel, but the Emergency period setting makes in an underlying theme. The characters come from different backgrounds so, the experience of each of them during this time differs from one another. This gave an insight into a period of unrest and crises from four perspectives which make the story is so realistic. Rohinton Mistry’s writing perfectly captures the essence of Indian culture in terms of his descriptions, and it transports you to those places and times. It touches on practices like the sterilizations, mass detentions, caste, and religious discrimination which were carried out during this time regularly.
The story takes a much darker turn and the true extent of the Government’s practices are exposed. It is hard to read through those parts. The freedoms citizens get that we take for granted; the story shows how horrific and anarchic it can get if these rights are taken away. For each character, the effect of the Emergency varies. Ishwar and Omprakash live in slums which are targeted areas for sterilization and labor camps. It is eluded that Maneck’s friend was an activist, and he was detained by the Government because he opposed, and nothing was heard of him again. Dina’s landlord constantly threatens her with eviction using thugs to do his dirty work.
I was unaware of the intensity and the extent of the effects on people’s lives at this time in the history of the country. The story is grounded, and at any point, doesn’t seem forced or unrealistic. The novel is pretty lengthy, but it is engaging throughout and doesn’t feel dragged on. I liked reading this book though, at times, it got too heavy. It is not something I’ll pick up again anytime soon, but it is one of the best books I have read. It is a must-read.
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