A Fine Balance Summary

Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance

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A Fine Balance Summary

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A Fine Balance is a novel by Rohinton Mistry published in 1995. It tells the story of a diverse group of characters living in India during the time of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, though she is never mentioned by name.

The story begins with two men of a lower caste system, Ishvar and Omprakash. Ishvar’s father apprenticed him and his brother, Narayan, to a local Muslim tailor to attempt to improve their caste situation in the new India, and these skills are passed to Narayan’s son, Omprakash. They take their skills to Bombay. When Narayan is murdered in retaliation for the family attempting to vote, Ishvar and Om flee.

On the train, they meet college student Maneck, who is on his way to the same place they are, the flat of Dina Dalal, the seamstress. They become friends as they spend time with Dina, and also develop a friendship with her.

Dina comes from a wealthy Farsi family. Her father was a medical doctor, but after his death, her mother was unable to care for her, so she lived with Nusswan, her older brother. Nusswan and his wife treated her more like a servant, so she was more than happy to find a husband and move out. She rejected the arrangements her brother made and found her own, a chemist. They were married for three years when he was killed by a car while on his bicycle.

Dina learned intricate embroidery work to maintain her independence, but after years of strain on her eyesight, she began to lose the use of her eyes and couldn’t do the work anymore. When she meets another woman who sold ready made dresses, she agrees to sew them for income, but chooses to outsource the work to Ish and Om. Maneck’s rent completes the finances she needs to maintain her independence.

Maneck was born in the mountains to loving parents. His father owned a grocery store, but they concentrated on his education. He is eventually sent away to boarding school to further his education, and act that he resents, but from there, he is able to go to college. At first, he lives in the dorms, but a humiliating hazing causes him to seek other living arrangements. He ends up in the flat of Dina.

Their arrangement goes well for the better part of a year with Ishvar and Om sewing and Maneck living with Dina. However, when the Prime Minister declares a state of emergency after an assassination attempt, the shantytown where the tailors live is knocked down. The return to their hometown to try to find a wife for Om. They are rounded up by the police and sent to a sterilization camp. Ishvar hoped to marry Om to a girl of a better caste, but all those dreams are dashed when someone from their hometown recognizes them and arranges to have Om castrated. Ishvar’s sterilization gets infected, and he loses his legs. They have nowhere to go and are forced to leave town.

Maneck takes a lucrative job in Dubai to escape the worsening conditions of Bombay. Dina is left alone, and cannot protect herself against the plans of her landlord to raise rent sharply, and she is forced to move back into her brother’s house.

The story picks up again eight years later. Maneck has returned from Dubai to attend his father’s funeral. His old college friend’s daughters have hung themselves to escape the humiliation of their parents’ inability to provide dowries. This news sends Maneck further into a depression. He goes to Bombay to see Dina for better news. He learns from Dina the horrific fates of Om and Ishvar in their lives as beggers. As he leaves, he passes them on the street. They think he doesn’t recognize them, but in truth, he is so shocked by their dirty appearance that he doesn’t know what to say.

He feels that there is no hope left in the world. He goes to the train station, and when the train approaches, he allows the train to run him over on the tracks. He doesn’t know that Om and Ishvar are still friends with Dina and that they were on their way to see her. The three friends discuss their lives and how their former friend Maneck has changed. The two leave promising to visit her, and she clears their plates so that Nusswan and his wife can use them later.

Unlikely friendships dominate the book. Each of the main characters is separated by caste and circumstance, but for a long time, they find support and solace in each other’s company. At the end of the book, this friendship remains true for Dina, Ishvar and Om, though Maneck allows his sadness to tear him away. We are left with a sense of longing, wondering if he’d had the courage to say something to them on the street, or if he’d stayed a little longer at Dina’s house, he might not have decided to commit suicide in his despair.

It is also much about the changes India experienced during the rule of Indira Gandhi. She made many changes to the constitution that allowed India to emerge as a greater power, but it was difficult in the immediate aftermath for many people who’s lives changed immensely in the wake of those changing traditions. She is never mentioned by name in the book, but at times the author seems critical of the sudden sweeping changes and their chaotic effect on India.

The cruelty apparent in the book is offset by the simple kindnesses offered between the friends and their network. We understand that life is a fine balance of many different things, much like the title suggests, and our lives are intertwined and dependent on the support of our friends.