A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Summary: Centered around the flat of Dina Dalal, inhabited by two tailors and a student with a larger circle on the periphery, the novel charts the “fine balances” the people of India sought to maintain through the Emergency Rule of Indira Gandhi–balances of both physical and spiritual.
For a twenty-one month period from 1975 to 1977 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ruled under a decree of a “state of emergency” in which constitutional processes were suspended during which mass arrests, forced sterilizations, and slum clearances forced residents into work camps or onto the streets, where they could be arrested as well. Corruption was rampant and “justice” was bought and sold.
Most of the narrative of A Fine Balance occurs during this period, with “retrospective” narratives of the lives of each of the principle characters and the circumstances that brought them together. The characters are Dina Dalal, a widow after losing, in a bicycle accident, the man she married for love, opposing her brother Nusswan’s efforts to match her up with more prosperous men. She struggles to support herself by sewing in order to hold onto the rent-controlled flat that represented the three years of love she and her husband enjoyed. Maneck Kohlah is the son of a couple living in the hill country who made their living operating a general store, slowly losing its edge to the tide of modernity invading their village. Maneck comes to the city for training in heating and air conditioning, tires of living in a filthy hostel and becomes a lodger with Dina through a friend of Maneck’s family. Ishvar and Omprakash Darji come from a caste of tanners, change occupation and learn tailoring and when custom work dwindles, come to the city even as Dina is setting up a shop to supply a clothing export business.
Already, one senses the “fine balance” between destitution and survival with which most of the characters struggle. Dina struggles to keep her flat against the attempts of her landlord to evict her to secure higher rents. Her steps to take lodgers and run a business put her at greater risk. Given the dearth of housing the tailors are forced to take a hut in one of the slums. Eventually it is bulldozed and they sleep in a shop doorway, paying off the watchman, until they are rounded up by police for a work camp (it is during the time at the work camp when the “fine balance” phrase is used for the Monkey Man, who eventually creates an act balancing two children on a pole, which his audiences found repulsive). Along with them is a beggar, Shankar, without hands or legs, who they help, and who in turn helps them until they can get free of the camp, with the aid of Shankar’s Beggar Master, to whom they are beholden but who also becomes their protector, and eventually Dina’s as well.
Maneck strives for a different “fine balance”, an interior one between parental relationships and expectations, his own aspirations, and the injustices and tragedies that he witnesses in the lives of his friends. In some sense, all of the characters live on the knife edge of hope and despair, but the question of for whom this is hardest–for those who endure the most physically or those who experience the most in their souls, is one of the questions this book raises.
Publisher’s blurbs describe this book as Dickensian in its narrative sweep and compassionate realism. Like Dickens, Mistry introduces us to a group of characters for whom we come to care and whose lives are caught up in the social forces of their time. One sees the tragic human consequences when “necessity” demands the suspension of the rule of law for the rule of power. And the book reminds us of the “fine balance” within which all of our lives are lived.