Set in India during the 1970s, A Fine Balance is a heartbreaking yet brilliant novel.
A Fine Balance of friendship
Recently widowed, Dina Dalal is determined to maintain her independence so ignores her abusive older brother’s demands for her to re-marry. Living in a small one-bedroom property, we meet Dina as she moves her bed from the small bedroom to make room for her new lodger, a Parsi student named Maneck Kohlah. Maneck arrives on her doorstep with two Hindu tailors he met on the train, Ishvar and Omprakash, who have been hired by Dina to make piecework items for the Au Revoir exports company. Gradually the backstory which has brought these four individuals unfolds. Maneck has been sent from his home in the hills by his parents, to get an education which will secure him a future. His diploma in refrigeration and air conditioning doesn’t interest him, but it is an “industry that would grow with the nation’s prosperity”.
The tailors were born into the “Chamaar caste of tanners and leather-workers” making them untouchables. Their village is rife with caste violence and impoverishment forcing their father to find an alternative future for them. A Muslim tailor, Ashraf, agrees to train them as apprentices in his shop, although under persecution for his faith they complete their training before looking for work in the city. Om is only 17 and his uncle, Ishvar, who has taken over paternal responsibility for him after his father’s death, is in his 40s. The two have little to call their own; the sewing machines they spend their days toiling at are rented, the illegal slum they live in is also rented, they carry all of their belongings in a case as they try to find a home.
Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency”
A Fine Balance is set in the 1970s during the Emergency Government period of Indira Gandhi. Her policies attempted to “beautify” India. This meant (amongst others) “voluntary” sterilisation for young men in exchange for a radio and enforced re-location for the city’s slum dwellers to the middle of nowhere, meanwhile her political opposition was systematically eliminated. It was a prosperous time for the wealthy, but the underbelly is exposed in A Fine Balance. The tailors feel the effects of the political upheaval the worst. After settling into a slum community, with its own host of memorable characters, their homes are destroyed in the name of “beautification”. Only a few weeks previously, the prime minister had forcibly bussed them out to the middle of nowhere to show their “support” for her political programme. They live each day not knowing what tomorrow will hold.
A fine balance, temporarily achieved
I won’t lie, A Fine Balance is (at times) hard to read, but these characters are wonderfully created by Mistry. They’re full of life, humour and personality. Even with the warning at the beginning of A Fine Balance from Mistry, taken from Le Pere Goirot, (“this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true”) you begin to relax into these character’s stories. How their lives have come together, and the joy each of them gain from spending time together is wonderfully told as chapter by chapter you come closer to knowing these individuals. This happiness gradually and slowly is stripped away as it becomes harder for the group to stay together, to maintain a fine balance, under the restrictions placed by their government and the unjust society they’re living in. It is a credit to Mistry’s writing, his way of building characters that are well-rounded and loveable that despite it being a harrowing read you don’t want to desert them.
A beautifully told (long) tale
A Fine Balance is a long book (over 600 pages). I picked up the paperback edition thinking “this isn’t so long”… until I saw the size of the font (tiny), which is a bit useless with my eyesight! I found it so much easier to read on my Kindle though, and it also helped to conquer my fear of long books. I know that it is easy to be put off by stories like A Fine Balance in exchange for a more upbeat one. But honestly, these characters and their lives are gripping. You feel for them and their journey in this beautifully told tale.