A Fine Balance is a book by Rohinton Mistry. It is a story about India against the backdrop of its political disintegration and decay. The action takes place during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, around 1975-77.
The story involves the lives of four people: Ishvar and Om, tailors; Dina Dalal, an embroideress; and Maneck, a college student. It depicts the lives of these characters in a rapidly changing modern India against the background of social, political and economic tumult. Within this broad canvas, it focuses on the struggles of ordinary people in extraordinary times.
We learn of each of their difficult present circumstances and precarious future. The author then flashes back to the past, gradually filling out these characters’ stories and the socio-economic issues.
‘I’m still waiting to meet one who will treat me as his equal. As a fellow human being – that’s all I want, nothing more.’
The central characters:
Dina comes from a wealthy Parsi family where she’s reduced to the status of a house help by her brother after their parents die. The status of a girl child and her worth doesn’t change much no matter how high the economic ladder you climb. She struggles to survive on her own independently.
Dina hires 2 tailors to work for her making dresses for a big factory; Ishvar and his nephew Om. Their backstory takes us into the world of caste politics and how people in power mistreat those they consider beneath them. The ‘Uppers’ won’t let their shadow touch the untouchables, but will want to get all their work done by them. The punishments and constant humiliation they face is inhuman!
…how starved they seemed for ordinary kindness
Maneck joins the three characters sharing a tiny space as a paying guest. He hails from a beautiful mountain town and has seen the ‘development’ of pristine lands without much thought and plenty of corruption. His parents send him away to the city to get a degree so he can live a better life. But he resents them for sending him away.
Through these characters, we’re introduced to a myriad of side characters and how life is for each of them. We see how class differences divide people and provoke hatred without any rational thought, and the effects of this blind hate.
Strange, that invisible lines could be so powerful, thought Maneck – strong as brick walls.
You just want the characters to catch a break, but the poor and marginalised hardly ever do. The plight of the tailors is pitiful and distressing. It’s sad to think that even after almost 50 years, the concept of untouchability remains deeply embedded in sections of Indian society and hasn’t evolved much.
The Emergency declared by the Congress during those years was harshest on those who were struggling to survive. The rich and powerful meanwhile welcomed it. The rights of the poor were taken away and they were at the mercy of anyone holding the stick. Now, history is repeating itself without giving it a label.
‘They need to frighten people to be patriotic?’
The book is also about relationships. How Dina, who was skeptical of the tailors’ intentions, learns to trust them and let them into her life; and how the four of them form an unlikely bond.
A Fine Balance is a harrowing story of life in contemporary India, told through the lives of four characters whose triumphs and struggles will leave you deeply touched. After you’ve read the last page, you’ll find yourself thinking about it for a very long time.
Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.
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