A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

This is one of those books that is making the rounds through my family. My sister’s boyfriend first read it, passed it onto my mum who gave it as a Christmas present to my boyfriend, who then passed it on to me. They all came away from it with slightly glazed eyes – it was enjoyable but shocking they said, read it when you have time to get into it. So I left it until the holidays and read it over a week (and didn’t do much else!). The book was published in 1995 so I apologise if I’m a bit late to the party.

The book is massive, a real doorstop of a thing, but it is clearly written and tells the wonderful, if not heartbreaking at times, interwoven stories of four main characters all living in or passing through the same city in India. The novel is set between 1975 and 1984, and covers so many social and political issues that it would be impossible to discuss them all here. The story begins in the ‘Emergency’ years, a controversial time in India’s history, and one ridden with civil and human rights violations.

Each character has their own story. The most shocking for me was the story of Ishvar and Om, two members of one of the untouchable castes. While I was aware that caste violence exists and has existed, I don’t think I was fully aware as to the extent of the violence. Mistry explains, through a number of terrifying incidences in the book, how caste violence penetrates every element of their lives.

Through another character, Dina, Mistry delves into the realm of women’s rights and the terrible consequences wrought by total male dominance, personified by Dina’s elder brother. Dina’s story is a sad and all too common story – she is robbed of her education as a young woman and is instead forced to take over the household chores. A further series of events leaves her a widow, with no income and few employment opportunities.

The final main character, Maneck, has a slightly different trajectory from the others. He has a structured and relatively wealthy upbringing, and moves to the city to begin university. I felt Maneck’s naivety at events happening in his own country, and his feelings of displacement and worthlessness within a society where he felt he could not deviate from a path chosen by him and his parents.

Alongside these main characters, others are introduced, broadening the horizon of the novel to include a huge and very diverse variety of people and parts of society. I found the book eye-opening in its candid and critical account of life in India, especially of life during the Emergency years. Mistry’s ability to weave together such distinct characters is profound, and left me feeling completely cathartic. Definitely a recommended read.

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