Written by Luke Neill
Rohinton Mistry’s 1995 novel A Fine Balance is set in 1970s India and follows four characters who come to interact with each other over a period of around 15 years. There is Dina, the struggling landlady whose husband was run over and killed whilst cycling to buy ice cream for a family gathering; Ishvar and Omprakash, tailors whose families had been brutalised by the destructive legacy of the caste system; and Maneck, a refrigeration and air conditioning student whose best friend is tortured and killed by the government.
Central to the plotline is The Emergency of 1975-1977, in which the Prime Minister was given the power to rule by decree, creating an effective dictatorship in response to threats of ‘internal disturbance’. This Emergency, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, proved to be one of the most intensely controversial moments of independent India’s history. Forced mass-sterilisation, censorship of the press, mass political arrests, and a ‘national beautification’ program in which thousands of slums were destroyed, created an atmosphere of political and social upheaval which the four characters are forced to navigate (and experience first-hand) throughout the course of the novel.
To try to explain the characters’ individual stories in one short paragraph is an injustice to the unimaginable picture of pain and suffering that Mistry paints. However, the curious beauty of the book is that in a story so saturated with pain, fear, torture, death and castration, there emerges unmistakable moments of joy. Mistry makes it abundantly clear that even the darkest horrors cannot suffocate the fundamental faculty of the human condition – to laugh in the face of adversity. This in itself, however, is by no means part of a neat and contrived narrative in which good trumps evil, and to settle with that would be a disservice to Mistry’s far more nuanced depiction of life and hardship.
In fact, by the end of the book, one begins to question the title. The overwhelming impression is that there seems to be no ‘Fine Balance’ whatsoever, and it would be understandable to conclude that all the joy and desire of the characters in the novel, all their intermittent yet powerful glimmers of hope, are quashed with a disturbing, catastrophic finality in its closing pages. It is certainly a sobering narrative. Without giving anything away, a future reader should not expect a happy ending. However, as The Atlantic puts it:
What makes the final pages of A Fine Balance heart-breaking is not that we see the protagonists’ lives so hideously diminished but that in spite of it all they are still laughing.
This sums up what seems the most important aspect of the book. It becomes clear that Mistry’s ‘Fine Balance’ is not the balancing of justice and injustice, of good and evil, or of love and hatred. It does not attempt to portray life as an equitable state in which these opposites weigh against each other into a precarious but enduring ‘Balance’. We learn instead that this balance is a state of mind, of measuring positivity and optimism against despair. If joy can manifest itself in the most abhorrent of circumstances, then personal suffering can always be balanced against acceptance – and eventually defiance – of one’s own condition.
I would recommend anyone to read A Fine Balance, whether to learn something about the period, to share in the fascinating stories of the characters, or to understand a culture and time in which the scales are tipped in the wrong direction.
Image: Cover image of A Fine Balance
Allen, Brooke. “Loss and Endurance: Rohinton Mistry’s tragic and triumphant vision”. Accessed 02/02/19: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/09/loss-and-endurance/302557/