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A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: A closer look at 1970s India

The novel painfully maps the corruption and lawlessness that pervaded India under the emergency rule; lootings, murders, dismemberment, and destruction of livelihood.

Rohinton Mistry’s magnificent novel is set in the backdrop of 1970s emergency marked by political unrest, displacement, and forced sterilization, the consequences of which slowly seep into the lives of four ordinary people. Dina Dalal, a 40-year-old seamstress houses Maneck Kohlah, a paying guest and two tailors Omprakash and Ishvar, who come with twinkle in their eyes to the city to live a life of dignity. Bound by an irreversible fate, these people through extraordinary circumstances find comfort and tranquility in Dina Dalal’s modest home.

From tip-toeing around, gnawing hesitancy created by generational trauma and caste barriers, these four people accept each other’s inhibitions, throwing themselves to each other’s care, while the world outside continues to burn. While it’s no surprise that Mistry’s characters are eloquently sketched, perhaps one of the finest pieces of mastery is reflected in Beggarmaster, who hires beggars, professionally modifies their limbs( amputating legs, gouging eyes) to garner public sympathy, employing them to beg for him on the streets while he takes a part of their share. The sadistic nature & cruelty of Beggarmaster is unnerving yet he administers utmost care for his beggars, overprotective of their needs in an anarchic world but at the same time responsible for their plight. 

The novel painfully maps the corruption and lawlessness that pervaded India under the emergency rule; lootings, murders, dismemberment, and destruction of livelihood. Mistry’s observation about the government’s many fallacies from ill-conceived employment programmes, to India’s dark history of botched sterilization, a state-sponsored attempt at population control, and institutionalized violence against lower castes sheds light on one of history’s tragic eras. The mass-sterilization was a target against poor people, often picking them up in the dead of night, with false promises and incentives of a better life. This brutalization of the helpless, the systemic oppression of the poor is a stark reminder of Indira Gandhi’s goonda raj. The onset of modernization coupled with early stages of capitalism gave way to destroying ecosystems. 

 A Fine Balance is an ambitious novel, to say the least. Mistry’s characters weave intricate stories, creating a world that’s closer than we’d ever hope yet seems so far removed. The familiarity of losing one’s loved one, of colossal losses and stripping off of identities, are themes that occupy this novel. There’s injustice, mistreatment, and prejudice. It’s heartbreaking and disturbing. But in a lot of ways, there’s hope, resilience and strength to march forward. A Fine Balance dives deep into the human psyche, laying bare every day reality one often overlooks; filling the pages with the misery of one’s existence and forces us to observe, to look around, and to question. Mistry’s writing gave its characters meaning, it shaped their worldview, and in return made us feel for them deeply. 

By Shumaila Taher

I am Shumaila Taher, editor and writer.
I exist in between the pages of a book.

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