A Fine Balance, By Rohinton Mistry

What’s This Book All About?

One of the most depressing book that I have ever read in my life, A Fine Balance is a compelling narration about the lives of four characters who go through a remarkable journey of pain, loss and love. Set during the internal emergency period in India,  this showcases a side of India, that is rampant with poverty, caste politics, torture, misery and the occasional glimmer of hope.

The Bigger Picture

Okay so books are supposed to comfort you and help bring some joy and laughter in your life. Well truth be told, this book is not one of those. Not only does this book chronicle four bleak lives, it does so without any hope for redemption or survival.

First of all, let me start by saying that Rohinton Mistry is one of the most underrated and prolific writers in the country. For me it is rare to meet an Indian author, whose works are par extraordinary in every manner. The most amazing part of his writing is that he completely focuses on the soul and substance of his words, rather than on adorning them with the use of over rated prose. That being said, Mistry especially in this novel writes in a tone that is completely unvarnished, earthly and full of life.

The vicissitudes of life bring together four of our main characters into a dingy little flat in the city of Bombay. Widow Dina Dalal has lived in solitude for many decades. In her struggle to make ends meet, she employs two tailors Ishwar and Omprakash Darji to work for her. Ishwar and Om, are uncle and nephew who have left their village and their traditional untouchable occupation of tanning animal hides to seek a better life in Bombay, the city of dreams. At the same time, Maneck Kohlah a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, comes to stay with Dina Dayal as a tenant. Maneck has come to the city to study air-conditioning and refrigeration, a course his father believes will equip him to deal with a world that is slowly progressing towards destroying nature in the path of better technological advancement.

A Fine Balance is the story of how these four characters become a family to each other and in the process find friendship, laughter, love as well as the courage to  endure pain and triumph despite their  hardships. This is the story of how reluctance was over-powered by compassion, how loneliness made room for companionship and how a house became home for these four people who would otherwise have never even crossed paths with each other. This is the story of broken dreams, of how each person’s life is webbed and entangled in a complex drama of caste, poverty and how the cruel emergency under Indira Gandhi, altered innumerable lives.


So how does it feel to read A Fine Balance?  How does it differ from the other books that are set in India? What makes this 600+ page novel a page-turner in the true sense? How is the life of Dina, Om, Ishvar and Maneck different from other Indians? Well the answer to that can go two ways. The first is that maybe there is nothing spectacularly different about the lives of these characters and the second is that this is one amazing story that does not come along very often. But in reality, the answer is that this novel is one of the finest pieces of writing employed by Mistry. His rational and unsentimental writing, brilliant character description and plot settings make it feel like every scene in the book is playing out in front of your eyes. Mistry does not use big words but they have the power to pierce your heart and effectively get the message across to the reader. The characters reflect the story with unmatched finesse. In fact, this is one of those few books that have almost no scope for improvement, because the author has used every weapon in his arsenal of writing to create a masterpiece, that is second to none.

Final Verdict

 There are very few Indian authors whose books deserve a prized position in your bookshelf and Rohinton Mistry is definitely one of them. Somewhere in the pages of this novel, the reader becomes friends with the characters and in turn experience their sorrow, unhappiness and susceptible situation in such close quarters. And though you wish things ended better for them, deep down you know that life rarely gives you happy endings.

A Fine Balance is a heart wrenching novel that captures the vulnerability of life through its characters, India through an unfortunate period of history and finally the beauty and strength of the human soul through hypnotic story telling.

This is a revolutionary book, and one that I would be disappointed to see readers miss out out on. Go buy it today.

In case, you are not from India, here is a brief description on the emergency and caste system, just to put this book a bit more into perspective.

Emergency in India: In order to curb ‘internal disturbances’ and to end the revolutionary waves that were gaining ground in the country, Indira Gandhi and her government imposed internal emergency in India on June 25, 1975. This lasted close to two years and resulted in endless hardships and despair to almost every section of the Indian population. The social and cultural equilibrium of the country was completely destroyed, causing tumultuous state of affairs. This period is considered as one of the most darkest phases of Indian democracy and is still an indelible mark as an epoch of madness, calamity and instability.

Caste System in India: It is close to impossible to explain the caste system in a few words, but to keep it simple; caste system in India is like concentric circles with the outermost circles being the most dominant class which enjoys most of the rights and privileges while the innermost are the socially oppressed, backward untouchables, who have been denied almost every right and privilege. While the caste system may seem draconian and outdated, the sad reality is that it has and continues to be an integral part of the culture fabric of India, since time immemorial.