A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

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					    A Fine Balance
    by Rohinton Mistry
A Fine Balance – In Brief

Determinedly clinging to her independence after the sudden death of her
beloved husband, Dina sets up as a seamstress. As her eyes begin to fail
she recruits two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, supplementing her
meagre income further by taking in Maneck, a student, as a paying guest.

What begins as a result of economic necessity eventually becomes an
arrangement between friends, each of whom has a demon with which to
wrestle. Dina must conquer her fear of losing her rent-controlled flat to
help Ishvar and Om who in their turn must cope with the destruction
wrought on their family as a result of stepping outside the caste system.
Even the privileged Maneck is troubled by his father’s apparent rejection.
When Ishvar and Om are caught up, not once but twice, in the govern-
ment’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened,
then torn apart. Through a cast of vividly drawn characters and with great
wit and humanity, A Fine Balance explores the effects of the state of
emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India.

Critical Reaction

‘A masterpiece of illumination and grace. Like all great fiction, it transforms
our understanding of life.’ Guardian

‘Mistry is a master blender of the picaresque and the tragic . . . To say
he captures the textures of India well and creates larger-than-life charac-
ters is to note the least of his achievements. If anything, his success is to
make life seem so much larger than the characters – a far tougher task
for the novelist . . . Enthralling.’ Observer

‘This is a work of genius. I cannot begin to review it without saying so.
It should be read by everyone who loves books, win every prize, make its
author a millionaire.’ Literary Review

Faber Book Club Guides: A Fine Balance
Born in Bombay in 1952 Rohinton Mistry missed the dark days of the state
of emergency, having emigrated to Canada by 'pure coincidence’ shortly
after it was declared on 26th June 1975 in response to civil unrest at
Indira Gandhi’s refusal to resign after being found guilty of corruption. In
the ‘70s emigration was considered the best option for well-educated
young Indians and armed with his Mathematics degree Mistry took up
a job in a Toronto bank, studying English and Philosophy part-time. He
began writing seriously after winning a university writing competition. Since
then he has published a collection of short stories followed by three novels,
all of which have met with a good deal of acclaim. A Fine Balance was
published twenty years after he left Bombay, returning only to visit, but
Mistry found no difficulty in summoning up the city. He explains ‘When
you have grown up in one place and spent the first 23 years of your life
there – that's how old I was when I left – it is almost as though you are
never going to be removed from that place’.

Mistry had originally planned to write a short novel. It began in his mind’s
eye ‘with the image of a woman at a sewing machine . . . As I began
writing, though, the story grew and I found myself getting interested in
other details of the characters' lives: Dina's life and where she had come
from, why the tailors were there and where had they come from, and so
on. So it all just grew and I was enjoying myself. It seemed to be working
as I wrote so I began letting the canvas grow, as it were, letting it expand.
I quickly realised that if I continued in this way, it was going to give me a
unique chance to tell not just a story set in the city, but also a story about
village life. India still lives in its villages (about 70-75 per cent of the popu-
lation is rural) so this had a particular appeal for me. The novel would give
me the chance to write about this student who comes from the North, the
foothills of the Himalayas. I had travelled a little bit there, and found myself
writing about it. That's how it turned into such a big book’. Although flat-
tered by the comparisons made by many critics between his own writing
and that of Tolstoy or Dickens, Mistry explains that he has made no
‘special study, nor am I particularly drawn to these authors. In fact, if I
were to choose my favourites, what I enjoy most, they would probably
include some American writers, like Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard
Malamud, and Updike’.

Comparisons have also been made between A Fine Balance and Salman
Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, also set in Bombay during the state of
emergency, but the two have little in common. Famous for its magic real-
ism, Midnight’s Children is set amongst the Muslim middle-classes,
while A Fine Balance is very firmly in touch with reality and with the dis-
possessed, a very deliberate decision on Mistry’s part. He has said 'I don't
think these people have been represented enough in fiction. Most fiction is
about the middle class; perhaps because most writers are from the middle
class.’ He is also dismissive of any talk of happy endings: 'Given the
parameters of my characters' lives, given who they are, how can you
expect them to have any more happiness than they have found? I think
that the ending is a hopeful one: The human spark is not extinguished.
They continue to find humour in their lives. This is an outstanding victory in
their case.' Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt here. The expectations
that those of us who have grown up in privileged circumstances have of a
happy ending is so far beyond the reach of the ‘thousands and thousands
of Ishvars and Oms in India today, people who keep going relentlessly in
spite of the odds’ as to be beyond imagining.

Faber Book Club Guides: A Fine Balance
For Discussion

• ‘In their village, the tailors used to be cobblers; that is, their family belonged to the Chamaar cast
of tanning and leather-workers’ (page 95). Dukhi Mochi takes his family out of the ‘untouchable’
caste to which they belonged. What prompted this unorthodox and brave decision? What are the

• ‘Consolation, as always, was found in muddled criticism of the colonizers who, lacking the stomach
for proper conclusions, had departed in a hurry, though the post-mortem was tempered with nostalgia
for the old days’ (page 209). How important is Partition in the novel? What consequences has it
brought about for the main characters?

• ‘I told you I’m not rich. The bathroom at home is plain, just like this. But there’s water in the flush.
And not such a stink’ (page 240). How would you describe Maneck? How aware is he of his privi-
leged upbringing? How does his character compare with Avinash’s?

• Dina is determined to remain independent after Rustom’s death. What does this determination cost
her? How difficult is it for a single woman to be self-reliant in India in the mid-1970s?

• ‘Government problems – games played by people in power. It doesn’t affect ordinary people like
you and me’ (page 75). Dina, Ishvar and Om all find themselves badly affected by the state of
emergency eventually. What impression do you have of Indian politics in the mid-70s from reading
A Fine Balance? What problems does the government face and how could they be solved more

• ‘That’s what I cannot understand. Why did the police take me? Beggarmaster pays them every
week – all his beggars are allowed to work without harassment’ (page 327). What other instances of
corruption are there in the novel? How does such endemic corruption affect the way in which society

• ‘You tailors have made your payments regularly, so you don’t have to worry – you are under my
protection’ (page 438). What kind of man is the Beggarmaster? Can it be argued as Dina suggests
that he is not ‘a completely bad man’ (page 556)? What do you make of his drawing of himself,
Shankar and Shankar’s mother?

• How do Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om find themselves ‘sailing under one flag’ (page 399). How
does their new arrangement change each of them and their relationship with each other?

• ‘The lives of the poor were rich in symbols, she decided’ (page 511). What does the quilt, Om’s
ill-fated wedding present, symbolise, and why does Dina leave it unfinished? What other symbols can
be found in ‘the lives of the poor’? How important is symbolism in the novel?

• ‘The Maneck we knew would have waited today’ (page 614). How has Maneck changed in his
eight-year absence? Why is he unable to wait for Ishvar and Om? How well have Ishvar and Om
dealt with their own changed circumstances? What did you think of the novel’s ending?

• What do you think Rohinton Mistry meant by the title A Fine Balance?

• Why do you think Mistry chose the quotation from Balzac’s Le Père Goriot to preface his novel?
How appropriate did you find it?

Faber Book Club Guides: A Fine Balance
                                         • Both the city in which the novel is largely set and the country’s
                                         Prime Minister are never referred to by name even though they are
                                         clearly identifiable. Why do you think Mistry chose not to name them?

                                         • ‘After waiting for months, and sometimes years, the litigants’ frenzy
                                         was understandable' (page 559). Mistry’s description of the courthouse
                                         is reminiscent of Dickens’ description of Chancery in Bleak House.
                                         What other aspects of A Fine Balance could be described as

                                         • A Fine Balance has been described as a ‘tragicomic novel’. How
                                         does Mistry use humour in his novel? How would you describe that
                                         humour? How well does it fit with the tragic elements of the novel?

                                         • Dina and Maneck are Parsi while both Ishvar and Om are Hindus
                                         who spent the latter part of their childhood entrusted to a Muslim
                                         household. What does the novel have to say about religion?
About the Author
Rohinton Mistry was born into a
Parsi family in 1952. He grew up
in Bombay where he attended
university, graduating in 1974 
with a degree in Mathematics.            Review by A. G. Mojtabai
He and his wife emigrated to
Canada the following year where
he began a course in English             Profile of Rohinton Mistry at the British Council website
and Philosophy at the University
of Toronto while working as a  
bank clerk during the day.               Interview by Nermeen Shiekh published at AsiaSource website
After winning several awards for
his short stories and a Canada
                                         Interview by Mary Mazzocco published in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Council grant, Mistry began to
write full-time in 1985. His first
novel, Such a Long Journey,    
won both the Commonwealth                Wikipedia’s page on India’s State of Emergency 1975-77
Writers Prize for Best Book and
the Governor General's Award,  
and was shortlisted for the              Wikipedia’s page on Indira Ghandhi
Booker Prize. It was made into
a feature film in 1998. A Fine
Balance won the Common-                  Suggested Further Reading
wealth Writers Prize for Best
Book, the Los Angeles Times
Book Prize for Fiction and the           Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Giller Prize, and was also short-        The Last Jet- Engine Laugh by Ruchir Joshi
listed for the Booker Prize, the         Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
International IMPAC Dublin               A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Literary Award and the Irish             The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
Times International Fiction Prize.
                                         Other Books by Rohinton Mistry
                                         Such a Long Journey
                                         Family Matters

                                         Short Stories
                                         Tales from Firozsha Baag

Faber Book Club Guides: A Fine Balance