An extraordinary tale of ordinary lives
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is an engaging, yet sobering story. It tells us of the intertwining lives and fates of everyday characters.
Story: Tara Saldanha | 10th September 2017, 06:37 Hrs
The novel is set alternatively in an unidentified Indian village and in an unnamed city that is reminiscent of the city of Mumbai. It traces the lives of its four main characters through approximately ten years of their lives. The book earned itself a place on the Booker Prize shortlist in the year 1996 and has even been adapted for the stage.
Two of the leading characters are Ishvar and Omprakash. They are hounded in their village by the local goon on account of their caste. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity and prejudice of rural life, they attempt to evade their caste identity by escaping to the city. Armed with the tools of a tailor's trade, they set off looking for a job. However, back home, trouble is brewing as the village strongmen take great offence that members of the lowest caste have had the gall to seek a better life.
The tailors bump into the next important character during their search for a job. Maneck is the much-loved only son of his parents. However he chooses to study far away from home in order to escape the hurts of family life. Unable to cope with malicious ragging and the pressures of hostel life, Maneck moves in as a paying guest into the house of his mother's friend, Dinah Dalal.
Dinah is a no-nonsense, Parsi woman who guards her independence fiercely. The first time we meet Dinah in the book she is in the midst of a heady romance with her future husband. Mistry crafts a simple yet poignant love story in the midst of the chaos of the big city. This part of the book also lends the later, harrowing sections a sense of stark fatality. Widowed early on, she is reluctant to rely on the kindness of strangers or family and takes to the one skill she knows, sewing, in order to make ends meet.
It is in Dinah's apartment that most of the action continues. A modest middle class home, with an illegal tailoring business in the back, serves as the environment for large parts of the novel. The way the home is described with its familiar sights and smells reinforce the fact that the story is an extraordinary one, but rooted in the lives of the common person. Here Ishvar, Omprakash, Maneck and Dinah converge and begin their winding journey together.
Mistry carefully knits together the different patterns of the story, pausing over the origin story of each character, even the most minor ones- the don of the beggars, Dinah's frustrated landlord, her overbearing brother and Maneck's revolutionary classmate. After a while, the stories run into one another till they reach a head. The complications in the story get murkier and murkier, drawing from issues of caste, government policy, student politics and family tension. As the characters sink deeper into the mire, they draw the reader further in.
The book focuses also on how larger social changes affect the ordinary citizen, in subtle as well as more drastic ways. Most interesting, is the focus on the effects of the politics of the time on the characters. Mistry makes a clear statement about the brutal results of stifling individual freedom, unfettered speech and the stripping away of human dignity by those with social and political power. He reveals the injustices that people have suffered at the hands of the government which have been left out of the narrative of history.
Mistry presents to us a quiet yet bold portrayal of reality through this winding tale. It is a must read if you're looking for a warm and stirring read. So clear your weekend- the page count on this book runs into several hundreds and once you start reading ,you'll want to never stop.
(Tara Saldanha holds a Master's degree in English. She lives under a pile of books, emerging at regular intervals to write about what she loves)
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