A Fine Balance

Last updated
A Fine Balance
A Fine Balance.jpg
First edition
Author Rohinton Mistry
Cover artist Dario Mitidieri [1]
Country Canada
Language English
Genre Historical novel
Published1995 (McClelland and Stewart)
Media typePrint (Paperback)
ISBN 0-679-44608-7
OCLC 33819149
813/.54 20
LC Class PR9199.3.M494 F56 1996

A Fine Balance is the second novel by Rohinton Mistry. Set in "an unidentified city" in India, initially in 1975 and later in 1984 during the turmoil of The Emergency, [2] the book concerns four characters from varied backgrounds – Dina Dalal, Ishvar Darji, his nephew Omprakash Darji and the young student Maneck Kohlah – who come together and develop a bond.

Novel Narrative text, normally of a substantial length and in the form of prose describing a fictional and sequential story

A novel is a relatively long work of narrative fiction, normally written in prose form, and which is typically published as a book. The present English word for a long work of prose fiction derives from the Italian novella for "new", "news", or "short story of something new", itself from the Latin novella, a singular noun use of the neuter plural of novellus, diminutive of novus, meaning "new". Walter Scott made a distinction between the novel, in which "events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society" and the romance, which he defined as "a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvellous and uncommon incidents". However, many such romances, including the historical romances of Scott, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, are also frequently called novels, and Scott describes romance as a "kindred term". This sort of romance is in turn different from the genre fiction love romance or romance novel. Other European languages do not distinguish between romance and novel: "a novel is le roman, der Roman, il romanzo, en roman." Most European languages use the word "romance" for extended narratives.

Rohinton Mistry is an Indian-born Canadian writer. He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2012.

India Country in South Asia

India, officially the Republic of India, is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by area, the second-most populous country, and the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the north; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives; its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.


First published by McClelland and Stewart in 1995, it won the 1995 Giller Prize. [3] It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996. It was one of the only two Canadian books selected for Oprah's Book Club, and was one of the selected books in the 2002 edition of Canada Reads , championed by actress Megan Follows.

This article presents lists of the literary events and publications in 1995.

The Booker Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Booker–McConnell Prize (1969–2001) and the Man Booker Prize (2002–2019), is a literary prize awarded each year for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the United Kingdom. The winner of the Booker Prize is generally assured international renown and success; therefore, the prize is of great significance for the book trade. From its inception, only novels written by Commonwealth, Irish, and South African citizens were eligible to receive the prize; in 2014 it was widened to any English-language novel—a change that proved controversial.

Oprahs Book Club Talk show segment of books chosen by Oprah Winfrey

Oprah's Book Club was a book discussion club segment of the American talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, highlighting books chosen by host Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey started the book club in 1996, selecting a new book, usually a novel, for viewers to read and discuss each month. In total the club recommended 70 books during its 15 years.

An acclaimed stage adaptation of the novel by the Tamasha Theatre Company was produced at the Hampstead Theatre in London in 2006 and later revived in 2007.

Tamasha is a British theatre company founded in 1989 by director Kristine Landon-Smith and actor / writer Sudha Bhuchar with a mission to bring contemporary drama of Asian influence to the British stage.

Hampstead Theatre theatre in Hampstead, London, England

Hampstead Theatre is a theatre in South Hampstead in the London Borough of Camden. It specialises in commissioning and producing new writing, supporting and developing the work of new writers. Edward Hall has been the artistic director since 2010.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Plot summary

The book exposes the changes in Indian society from independence in 1947 to the Emergency called by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mistry was generally critical of Indira Gandhi in the book. She, however, is never referred to by name by any of the characters, and is instead called simply "the Prime Minister". The characters, from diverse backgrounds, are brought together by economic forces changing India.

Prime Minister of India Leader of the executive of the Government of India

The prime minister of India is the leader of the executive of the Government of India. The prime minister is also the chief adviser to the President of India and head of the Council of Ministers. They can be a member of any of the two houses of the Parliament of India—the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha —but has to be a member of the political party or coalition, having a majority in the Lok Sabha.

Indira Gandhi First Lady Prime Minister of India

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was an Indian politician, stateswoman and a central figure of the Indian National Congress. She was the first and, to date, the only female Prime Minister of India. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. She served as Prime Minister from January 1966 to March 1977 and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984, making her the second longest-serving Indian Prime Minister, after her father.

Prologue: Ishvar and Om's story

Ishvar and Omprakash's family is part of the Chamaar caste, who traditionally cured leather and were considered untouchable. In an attempt to break away from the restrictive caste system, Ishvar's father apprentices his sons Ishvar and Narayan to a Muslim tailor, Ashraf Chacha, in a nearby town, and so they became tailors. As a result of their skills, which are also passed on to Narayan's son Omprakash (Om), Ishvar and Om move to Bombay to get work, by then unavailable in the town near their village because a pre-made clothing shop has opened.

Chamar ethnic group

Chamar is one of the untouchable communities, or dalits, who are now classified as a Scheduled Caste under modern India's system of positive discrimination. As untouchables, they were traditionally considered outside the Hindu ritual ranking system of castes known as varna. They are found throughout the Indian subcontinent, mainly in the northern states of India and in Pakistan and Nepal.

Caste form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a lifestyle often including occupation, status in a hierarchy, customary social interaction, and exclusion, existing in various regions including South Asia

Caste is a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a style of life which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy, and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution. Its paradigmatic ethnographic example is the division of India's Hindu society into rigid social groups, with roots in India's ancient history and persisting to the present time. However, the economic significance of the caste system in India has been declining as a result of urbanization and affirmative action programs. A subject of much scholarship by sociologists and anthropologists, the Hindu caste system is sometimes used as an analogical basis for the study of caste-like social divisions existing outside Hinduism and India. The term "caste" is also applied to morphological groupings in female populations of ants and bees.

Leather durable and flexible material created by the tanning of animal rawhide and skin

Leather is a durable and flexible material created by tanning animal rawhide and skins. The most common raw material is cattle hide. It can be produced at manufacturing scales ranging from artisan to modern industrial scale.

A powerful upper-caste village thug, Thakur Dharamsi, later has his henchmen murder Narayan and his family for having the temerity to ask for a ballot. Ishvar and Omprakash are the only two who escape the killing as they lodged with Ashraf in the nearby town.

A ballot is a device used to cast votes in an election, and may be a piece of paper or a small ball used in secret voting. It was originally a small ball used to record decisions made by voters.

At the beginning of the book, the two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash, are on their way to the flat of widow Dina Dalal via a train. While on the train, they meet a college student named Maneck Kohlah, who coincidentally is also on his way to the flat of Dina Dalal to be a boarder. Maneck, from a small mountain village in northern India, moves to the city to acquire a college certificate "as a back-up" in case his father's soft drink business is no longer able to compete after the building of a highway near their village. Maneck and the two tailors become friends and go to Dina's flat together. Dina hires Ishvar and Om for piecework, and is happy to let Maneck stay with her.

Dina, from a traditionally wealthy Parsi family, maintains tenuous independence from her brother by living in the flat of her deceased husband, who was a chemist.

Dina's Story

Dina grew up in a wealthy family. Her father was a medical doctor who died when she was twelve. Her mother was withdrawn and unable to take care of Dina after her father's death, so the job fell to Nusswan, Dina's elder brother. Nusswan was rather abusive to Dina, forcing her to do all the cooking, cleaning, and drop out of school, and hitting her when she went against his wishes. Dina rebelled against Nusswan and his prospective suitors for her when she came of age, and found her own husband, Rustom Dalal, a chemist, at a concert hall. Nusswan and his wife Ruby were happy to let her marry Rustom and move to his flat.

Dina and Rustom lived happily for three years until Rustom died on their third wedding anniversary, after being hit by a car while on his bicycle. Dina became a tailor under the guidance of Rustom's surrogate parents to avoid having to move in with Nusswan. After twenty years her eyesight gave out from complicated embroidery and she was once again jobless. She eventually met a lady from a company called Au Revoir Exports - Mrs Gupta - who would buy ready-made dresses in patterns. She agrees to let Dina sew the patterns. But since Dina has very poor eyesight, she decides to hire tailors. She also decides to have a paying guest to generate more income for her rent.

The tailors rent their own sewing machines, and come to Dina's flat each day for nearly two weeks before the first round of dresses is completed. The three get along fairly well, but Dina and Omprakash do not see eye to eye all the time. Omprakash is angry that Dina is a middle-person; he wants to sew for Au Revoir directly.

Maneck's story

Maneck was born in a mountain town in the Kashmir Valley to loving parents, Mr and Mrs Kohlah. Maneck is drawn to the natural scenery of his homeland, straddled between the Himalayas. His father owned a grocery store that had been in the family for generations. The store sold household necessities and manufactured the locally popular soda, Kohlah Cola. Maneck spent his days going to school, helping at the store, and going on walks with his father. When he was in the fourth standard, Maneck was sent to boarding school to help his education, much to his dismay. After this, his relationship with his parents deteriorates because he does not wish to be separated from them and feels betrayed. His parents send him to a college and choose his major, refrigeration and air-conditioning.

Maneck goes to college and stays at the student hostel. Maneck becomes friends with his neighbor, Avinash, who is also the student president and who teaches him how to get rid of vermin in his room. Avinash also teaches Maneck chess and they play together often. Avinash later becomes involved in political events, for which Maneck has little interest, and their friendship is no longer a priority for Avinash. They start seeing each other quite infrequently. But when the Emergency is declared in India, political activists had to go into hiding in order to be safe, Avinash included. Maneck, after a humiliating ragging session by fellow hostel students, has his mother arrange a different living situation for him, and he moves in with Dina Dalal.

Effects of the Emergency

Dina and the tailors' business runs fairly smoothly for almost a year, but effects of the Emergency bother them often. The shantytown where the tailors live is knocked down in a government "beautification" program, and the residents are uncompensated and forced to move into the streets. Later Ishvar and Om are rounded up by a police beggar raid and are sold to a labor camp. After two months in the camp, they bribe their way out with the help of the Beggarmaster, a kind of pimp for beggars. Ishvar and Om are lucky and Dina decides to let them stay with her. The tailors and Dina find trouble from the landlord, because she is not supposed to be running a business from her flat. She pretends that Ishvar is her husband and Om their son and also gets protection from the Beggarmaster.

Ishvar and Om return to their village to find a wife for Omprakash, who is now eighteen. Maneck returns home, finished with his first year in college (he has received a certificate but not a degree), but has stiff relations with his family and finds that his father's business is failing due to the invasion of cheap commercial sodas. He takes a lucrative job in Middle Eastern Dubai to escape the conditions.

Dina being alone now, and her protector the Beggarmaster having been murdered, has no protection from the landlord who wants to break her apartment's rent control and charge more rent, so she is evicted. Dina is forced to move back to her brother Nusswan's house.

Omprakash and Ishvar return to their old town to find that Ashraf Chacha is an elderly man whose wife died and daughters were all married off. He gives them a place to stay while they search for marriage prospects for Om. While they walk around the village, they run into the upper-caste Thakur Dharamsi. Omprakash recognizes him and spits in his direction. Thakur in turn recognizes Om, and decides to somehow pay Om back for his disrespect of an upper caste member. When Ashraf Chacha, Ishvar, and Om are in the village, they run into herders from the Family Planning Centre. As the Centre in this city did not fill its quota, they took random people from the street and forced them into a truck that drove them to the Family Planning Centre. All three are beaten into the truck and since Ashraf Chacha is so old, he is gravely injured and later dies on the street. Ishvar and Omprakash beg to escape the forced sterilization, but the vasectomy takes place. As they lie in an outside tent recovering, Thakur Dharamsi comes by and coerced the doctor to give Om a castration. Ishvar's legs become infected due to the use of unsterilized surgical equipment used for the vasectomy and must be amputated. However, Ishvar and Om have nowhere to go now that Ashraf Chacha has died. His son-in-law sells his house and they are forced to leave town.

Epilogue: 1984

Eight years later, Maneck returns home for the second time from Dubai for his father's funeral. Maneck is repulsed by the violence that follows after the Prime Minister's assassination, for which Sikhs are killed. He returns home and attends the funeral, but cannot bring himself to truly miss his father, only the father of his young childhood.

While at home he reads old newspapers and learns that Avinash's three sisters have hung themselves, unable to bear their parents' humiliation at not being able to provide dowries for their marriages. Shocked and shaken, he decides to visit Dina in Bombay for better news. He learns from Dina the horrific lives that Ishvar and Om – one disabled and the other castrated – have led as beggars after their village visit. As Maneck leaves, he encounters Om and Ishvar on the street. The two former tailors are nearly unrecognizable because of their filth, and don't appear to recall him. They say "Salaam" to him, but he doesn't know what to say and walks on.

Maneck goes to the train station, his world shattered. He walks out on the tracks as an express train approaches the station and commits suicide by letting the train run over him.

It turns out that Om and Ishvar were on their way to visit Dina. They are still friends, and she gives them meals and money when the house is empty. Dina and the beggars discuss their lives and how Maneck has changed from a pleasant and friendly college student to a distant refrigeration specialist. Om and Ishvar leave, promising to visit after the weekend. Dina washes up their plates, and returns the plates to the cupboard, where they are to be used later by Nusswan and Ruby.


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