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Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

27th March, 2016

Book Review: A fine balance by Rohinton Mistry

Four people from different backgrounds cross paths, what happens then? The book tries to define the fine balance between hope and despair as the four strangers share their stories with each other. And henceforth, innate virtues of humanity begin to cloud the divides of caste, class, religion and the realization of right and wrong.


I came across this book while searching about books set in the era of ‘Emergency’ in India when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. As the story unfolds we see mushrooming callous government officials , employment programmes that benefit higher authorities rather than down-trodden masses , violence of rights of lower caste, all ensuing from a government struggling to prevent its downfall while being scarred by corruption.

“After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents – a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life.”

Mrs. Dina Dalal, a Parsi widow in her early 40’s, Maneck Kohlah, her paying boarder who she was forced to take in due to financial needs, and two Hindu tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, whom she hires to sew dresses for an export company are the four main characters about whom pivots the main storyline. All of them are fleeing from something – Dina from accepting charity from her brother’s patriarchial household and forced remarriage, Maneck, is studying for a diploma to survive in a new world while his village in the mountains undergoes development (or destruction) by road construction and electrification projects leading to deforestation and the tailors, Ishvar and Om from caste, communal and institutional violence of Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. As Dina struggles to break free from the norms society has set for aging, single women, her life gets entwined in the stories of the other three.

Book Review: A fine balance by Rohinton Mistry

Another prominent character is the Beggar Master, who supervises the beggars in the city. He cares for the same people who he mutilates inorder to earn money for him. And surprisingly, they all love him. I was shocked beyond words in the descriptions where he keeps a notebook with future plans on expanding his business with new and innovative mutilations that would earn more sympathy and hence monetary benefits. He sees all this as an ‘art’ though. Even more surprising is how the four main characters of the novel find nothing odd about it. Perhaps it is their realization that life is cruel that makes them ignore it or their situation that cannot be resolved without his help that make them accept a dont-care attitude to his profession.

There are certain characters that I couldn’t get acquainted with because their entry and exit seemed so abrupt that they are almost unbelievable. One such character is the proof reader who makes a brief acquaintance with Dina and Maneck on separate occasions and yet seems to remember every detail of his conversations even after many years. I found Maneck’s return to the unnamed city after years to be wobbly as well as lacking the fineness that the earlier part of the novel has.

I wouldn’t say it is the ‘one’ book that gives a reality check on the situation in India, especially during lesser fortunate times, but I would still recommend this one simply for the ambitious subject it has tackled and nearly succeeded. It is a good read on the search for kindness in inhumane scenarios.

Title : A Fine Balance
Author : Rohinton Mistry
Published by : Faber
Published : 2006
Language : English
Pages : 624
Rating : 3.5/5

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A Fine Balance

About the Author

Rohinton Mistry is an Indian-born Canadian. His third book, and second novel, A Fine Balance (1995), won the second annual Giller Prize in 1995, and in 1996, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. It was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in November 2001. It won the 1996 Commonwealth Writers Prize and was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize. His other works include Tales from Firozshah Bagh and Such a Long Journey. He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2012.

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This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. I shuddered when I read about Beggar Master, although I have heard a lot of stories about it, Resh. I still want to try reading this book sometime. I have got Mistry’s ‘Such A Long Time’ in my stash. Maybe, I will try this one after I meet ‘Such A…’

    1. He was the most shocking character, partly because of how well Mistry puts it and partly because we know such stories are true. Will be looking forward to reading your review after you are done with ‘Such a long time’.

  2. Our entire world is in a – very – fine balance indeed. Not just India.
    And every other day the balance is tilted the… sad, tragic way.
    I’ll make a note of that book. Thank you for the review. And have a fine, balanced week.

    1. It is a good book Nicole. Except for some minor hiccups and abrupt end, the book paints a very realistic picture of how cruel the government can be for its survival. And how it takes advantage of the divides among the minds of the people to inflict more harm to the residents.

  3. I find books like these both interesting and heartbreaking to read. It’s a style a lot of Filipino authors use as well, telling a real story of fictional people during a difficult period of history. You learn a lot, and yet you feel grieved for your countrymen. Did you find you felt the same?

  4. I read this one is high school so I have somewhat hazy memories of it, but I remember finding it profoundly depressing. But at the same time I felt like I was learning to be more aware of how different life might be for someone else in a different place. But I can understand your comment about the minor characters, which I wonder if this isn’t a symptom of writing of book of this size?

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