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Set on the backdrop of the Emergency in 1970, Rohinton Mistry’s novel, A Fine Balance is a tale of our prejudiced caste system, a corrupt and cruel society, of grief and despair, and a single woman’s struggle for existence.
“…you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair. In the end it’s all a question of balance.” First published in 1995, this book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1996.
I was recommended this book by my client whom I had counseled back in 2007. And the reason he said he liked this book was that he saw himself, as one of the characters in the book. I was moved to tears when I read this novel and I would recommend that everyone grab a copy and read it.
The book deals with four characters, who had been victims of the caste system; had dealt with poverty, hardships, humiliations, and had faced the atrocities during the Emergency when India was ruled by thugs and goons whose sole purpose was to overpower the poor for power and money. All the four characters come from different background but get connected through one common cord – destitution and grief.
Brothers Ishvar and Narayan who belong to a lower caste, treated as untouchables, and who have learnt tailoring under a Muslim tailer Ashraf chacha. Narayan’s son Om, who too is sent to Ashraf Chacha to learn the art of tailoring. Later Narayan and his entire family gets killed in the village by Thakur Dharamsi on a dispute on voting rights and the only survivors are Ishvar and his nephew Om as they had been away from the village.
Then there is the beautiful young woman Dina who grows up in a wealthy family in Bombay, and had been the apple of eye of her doctor father who dies when she is just twelve. Her mother, unable to bear the shock of losing her husband withdraws herself and the sole responsibility to run the household falls on the shoulder of Dina’s brother Nusswan. Nusswan, with his hostile attitude towards Dina forces her to do all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of the sick mother and often hitting her when she went against his wishes.
Dina is made to drop out of her school and Nusswan starts searching for suitors to get her married off. Dina loses her mother, Nusswan gets married and the torture and chores increase on Dina with each passing day. Ultimately Dina rebels and marries Rustom Dalal a chemist whom she had met in a concert hall. Dina finds love in arms of Rustom and post her marriage moves to his rented flat.
Rustom an orphan had his neighbors Shirin Aunty and Darab uncle whom he revered as his own parents. Dina takes a liking for Shirin Aunty and Darab uncle who see her as their own daughter. All goes well for three years till Rustom suddenly gets killed in a road accident leaving behind a young and vulnerable Dina. Though Nusswan initially shelters Dina his never ending taunts forces Dina out of his home to move back to her husband’s rented apartment. The once wealthy Dina suddenly falls victim of extreme poverty, learns tailoring from Shirin aunty and takes up tailoring job to meet her ends. She refuses to go back to her abusive brother and it is her grit with which she endures the blows life had thrown to her.
The third character is Maneck Kohlah who was born in the mountains. Maneck’s father owns a grocery shop and also manufactures a popular soda with brand name Kohlah Cola. Maneck was happy living with his parents when suddenly he was packed off to boarding school by his father, thinking about his future. Since then his relationship with his parents deteriorates and the final straw is when upon his return from boarding school he is sent to Bombay to study refrigeration and air conditioning.
The novel moves to present times where Ishvar and Om move from Asraf Chacha’s house to Bombay in search of a livelihood and in the train befriend Maneck. Back in Bombay Dina’s poor eyesight leaves her no option but to search for tailors to continue her tailoring business. To add to her income she rents out a part of her apartment, and Ishvar, Om and Maneck land up in Dina’s house.
Mistry in his novel has depicted the struggle of a single woman Dina who handles the advances of men, deals with the cruel landlord, manages her meager business all by herself. The effect of emergency is also scripted in beautifully where the tailor’s shanty gets knocked down for the government beautification program. They are rendered homeless and are sold off to a labor camp. Later they bear brunt of the caste system which leaves Om castrated and Ishvar’s leg amputed due to forced vasectomy by the upper caste Thakur whom they encounter while searching for a bride for Om. Dina too is forced out of her rented home and had to take shelter in her brother’s house.
The novel too dealt with the violence that followed after the Prime Minister’s assassination where Sikhs were killed and it was portrayed through Maneck’s eyes. The novel also deals with the brutality of the dowry system where Maneck learns from the newspaper that his friend Avinash’s sisters have hung themselves as their parents could not fetch in the dowry for their marriages. In expectation of better news he visits Dina at Nusswan’s house where he gets bitter news of the tragic fates of all three. Dina at mercy of her brother, and Ishvar and Om reduced to beggars surviving on Dina’s leftovers.
Mastery of Mistry lies in the end of the novel. It ends with a poignant note with Maneck committing suicide as his world is shattered. Dina, Om and Ishvar maintain a fine balance between dream and anguish. A spectacular novel with strong depiction of a woman character and the savagery of the caste system the novel is bound to keep the readers gripped till the last page.
Before I forget I had narrated that client of mine who had found a similarity with a character in this book. Yes he did find a similarity and that was with Maneck and the difference is he did not commit a suicide which Maneck did and says that it was my counseling that had stopped him from committing a suicide. So what are you waiting for? Go get your copies and delve into the book. I myself have read this novel many times. It’s a reality of the Emergency, caste, cruelty and pogrom narrated through a tale of fiction.
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Top image via Pixabay and book cover via Amazon
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