Rohinton Mistry manages to bring forth the horror and devastation wreaked by the Emergency in all its vividness through ‘A Fine Balance’. The novel is both a commentary on the political and social environment of the time as well as a beautiful tragedy.
The story is based in 1975 in an unidentified city near the sea in India, riddled with poverty and teeming with beggars. Mistry places four pivotal characters in this squalid city. Mrs. Dina Dalal, 40-ish, poor and widowed after only three years of marriage. Determined to remain financially independent and to avoid a second marriage, she takes in a boarder and two Hindu tailors to sew dresses for an export company. Maneck is the son of an old school friend of Dina’s who has been sent to college because the family business is failing; and the two tailors are Ishvar and his nephew Om, who have left their village in an effort to escape the repressive caste system.
The novel revolves around the interactions between these four characters. Their dreams and ambitions and the trials that they must face in life in order to achieve these. For four months, these four characters become a family. Eating and sleeping together, sharing their dreams, meals and living space. Their relationships with each other transcend inter-caste problems and barriers of caste, religion and monetary status. The cramped apartment becomes a haven from the political and social turmoil of the time. The four face various unpleasant encounters and are repeatedly saved from these by a quaint character, the Beggarmaster. The backdrop of the novel through all this is the Emergency period and the callousness of Indira Gandhi’s government.
After lulling us into a false sense of contentment and security, we are reminded of the turmoil in the outside world by sudden tragedy which envelopes the lives of these four characters. On a visit back home, Om and Ishvar are forcibly sterilized; Maneck, devastated by the murder of an activist classmate, goes abroad. Dina who is unaware of all this is suddenly left all alone. She has no inkling of what has happened to the tailors and does not know why they do not come back from the village. Her immediate reaction is that once again she has been let down by people she has placed her trust in. Dina and the tailors carry on with their lives through all this because they have learnt “to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair”.
Mistry manages to relate the cruelty faced by innocents and untouchables when a “State of Internal Emergency” is declared. The characters are used to represent people from all walks of life in India. The tailors are representative of villagers. Dina Dalal, is living in urban India. The young boy is representative of the youth of India. Through their experiences we realize the implications of a repressive caste system, an intrusive and hostile government and other adversities that must have existed in the India of the seventies.
Mistry also manages to maintain a fine balance of his own. He blends bad luck with a dash of hope, egging us on – only to dash our expectations with a new set of conflicts and troubles. There is always a silver lining for his characters. He creates a masterpiece that is Dickensian in its sympathy for the poor while combining it with a celebration of the indomitable spirit of human desire and hope as well as the despair of unfulfilled dreams. The novel is a symphony of corruption, cruelty, hope, desire, kindness and despair.