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A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry’s Fine Balance has such a profound impact on you that it makes you change the way you look at your surroundings.

After writing award-winning novels like Tales from Ferozshah Baug (1987) and Such a Long Journey(1991), Rohinton Mistry wrote, A Fine Balance (1995) which is set in 1975, in an unnamed place by the sea, presumably Bombay at a time when India was steeped in a state of extreme political turmoil. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India and the country lost its democratic status for that period of time. While most of the world was aware of what India went through as a nation, few were aware of the effects of the emergency on the poor and destitute. They were perhaps the ones who suffered the most. A Fine Balance tells us the story of these people. While the novel won many accolades, it was also criticised for portraying a very putrid and despondent picture of India. Nevertheless, the steady and seamless flow of the way the lives of the characters unfolded, coupled with the kaleidoscopic scenes of Bombay makes the book a riveting read.

The novel revolves around Dina Dalal, who is widowed at a very young age and who has never been able to let go off the tender memories of her husband Rustom She struggles to make ends meet by stitching clothes. At the age of forty-two when her eyesight starts failing she is forced to employ two tailors Ishvar and Omprakash Darji to stitch frocks for a nearby tailoring company. When Dina’s friend’s son, Maneck Kolah comes on board as a paying guest, the four of them, although unhesitatingly at first, begin to make a life for themselves. But given the pessimistic and bleak tone of the book, this does not last for too long and the book ends on a very tragic note.

Rohinton Mistry paints a colourful picture of the city of Bombay and the many obscure individuals residing in it. You have to be unflinchingly prepared to take in the extraordinariness of the many characters introduced to you during the course of the book. Be it the Rajaram, the haircollecter who collects and sells hair for a living and becomes so overcome by this obsession that he even kills a few people for their hair or the Monkeyman with his two monkeys and a dog who perform on the street or Shankar the crippled beggar who is looked after by the Beggarmaster, the man who controls all the beggars in the area. All of them have a story of their own. Some fascinate you, others just repulse you.

After reading the book you have mixed feelings; on one hand you feel awe and admiration for the writer and his ability to change the way you perceive the world around you, on the other hand you feel disgust at the misery and hopeless end. You remove your rose tinted glasses and accept, though reluctantly the harsh reality that is life. You are overcome by myriad emotions; you feel desperate, hopeless, pessimistic, rebellious, revolted at the same time. Finally, you begin to wonder at the true purpose of literature and whether it is supposed to inspire you or make you so completely pessimistic and distressed.

– Aditi Kotwal

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