44 pages 1 hour read

Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Indian-born Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry’s 1995 novel A Fine Balance is the story of four characters from diverse backgrounds whose paths converge in 1975 India. Maneck Kohlah, a college student, has rented a room in the city. On his way to inspect the apartment of Dina Dalal, he meets two tailors, Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash (Om) Darji, also on their way to Dina’s to find sewing jobs.

Dina hires the tailors to work from patterns provided by Au Revoir Exports even though she isn’t supposed to run a business from her rent-controlled apartment. Dina, a widow, wants to maintain her financial independence so that she won’t have to move back in with her brother, Nusswan Shroff, who treats her like an unpaid servant. Meanwhile, the landlord is looking for an excuse to evict her and get a higher paying tenant.

The Darjis belong to the “untouchable” caste. By learning the sewing trade, they have escaped their village, where the upper castes oppress the lower ones, and where a local landholder named Thakur Dharamsi killed the rest of the Darji family because Ishvar’s brother got above his station. Ishvar and Om hope for a fresh start in the big city and are glad to find employment with Dina.

Maneck is taking a certificate program in refrigeration and air-conditioning at the city college. He’s disgusted with the filthy student housing and wants to go home. Instead, his parents arrange for him to rent a room from Dina, who was his mother’s school friend. Even though Dina’s flat is shabby, Maneck finds it a better alternative than the student hostel.

Maneck and Om become fast friends since they are both 17. Ishvar acts like their father, while Dina acts like their mother. Despite hardships and struggles, the four form a family bond. The apartment becomes a safe haven in the midst of political turmoil, abject poverty, squalid slums, and government corruption in 1975 India.

The appalling conditions in which people live in the city deeply affect Maneck. He easily becomes overwhelmed and depressed despite acquaintance Vasantrao Valmik’s advice that he must learn to strike a balance between hope and despair. Maneck refuses to move forward psychologically. He prefers to dwell on his lost, happy childhood and resists the changes that life forces on him.

Dina has other problems. She worries about money and about meeting her weekly Au Revoir Exports quota. She’s constantly harassed by the rent-collector and warned about operating a business in her flat. However, Dina chooses to ignore the threats and boldly claims that Om and Maneck are her sons and Ishvar is her husband, holding the befuddled rent-collector temporarily at bay.

Despite the threats surrounding them, the four people in Dina’s flat prosper. Dina stitches a quilt from scraps accumulated during their year together. Each square contains a memory from their shared past. This familial bond temporarily breaks when they have to part: Ishvar takes Om back to their village to find him a bride, and Maneck must return home until school resumes. Once they are gone, Dina misses her flatmates and hopes for their speedy return.

The tailors face new misfortunes when they return to their village. Om spits at Thakur, the man who burned his family. Thakur plans to take revenge for the insult. Because Thakur heads the government’s voluntary sterilization program, he gives orders for people to be rounded up at random for the surgery. When Ishvar and Om are taken, Thakur arranges for Om to be castrated rather than just get a vasectomy. Ishvar develops blood poisoning from his surgery and needs to have his legs amputated.

Unaware of his friends’ plight, Maneck takes a job in Dubai and doesn’t return until his father’s funeral in 1984. In the intervening years, Maneck has been unable to find any meaning in life. Upon returning to India, he’s still appalled by the violence, tragedy, and political turmoil. Nothing has changed for the better in his absence.

Maneck hopes to receive cheerful news by visiting Dina and the tailors. Instead, he finds Dina living as a dependent in her brother’s house. She is nearly blind and appears old and worn out. Maneck learns from her that the tailors are now beggars. Upon leaving Dina, Maneck encounters Ishvar and Om on the street, but their ragged appearance shocks him so much that he doesn’t acknowledge them.

While Maneck waits for a train to take him back home, despair at all the losses his friends have suffered overwhelms him. He also feels the loss of his own happy makeshift family. Seeing no reason to continue living, Maneck throws himself in front of an oncoming express train and commits suicide.

Not suspecting that Maneck has ended his life, Dina brings the tailors inside for lunch as usual, since she feeds them whenever the rest of the family is out. They joke with one another, recalling the old days. Ishvar now uses the quilt that Dina made as a seat cushion. He frets at a torn square, but Dina gives him needle and thread to repair it. When the tailors leave, Dina says to herself that they still manage to make her laugh every day, just as Maneck once did.

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