A Fine Balance – Rohington Mistry

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Reading Time: 11 minutes


A Fine Balance, the fictional novel by the Indian- Canadian Writer, Rohington Mistry is about the perfect balance of life and death. it portrays, pre and post-independent urban and rural Indian life, partition effects, the period of emergency, and the Sikh genocide.
The story is centered on four main central characters Dina Dalal (Shroff), Manek Kohla, Ishwar, and Om Prakash. Dina and Manek are Parsi’s whereas  Ishwar and om  Prakash the tailors are originally cobblers ( chamars). But the main game-changer in this novel is Dukhi Mochi who is the father of Ishwar and Narayan. Om Prakash is the son of Narayan.

The chamars live on carcasses of dead animals given by higher castes. The supply was irregular. They gather leftover grains from the harvested fields for a morsel of food. There is a turn system for getting carcasses also. For non-completed work, they do not get paid. Even the payment is very low and meager. They were supposed to keep a distance so as not to contaminate the upper castes. They were not allowed to go near the village well to avoid pollution. A Bhangi daring to let his unclean eyes meet brahmin’s eyes, a chamar walking on the wrong side of the temple and defiling it, overhearing sacred shlokas, going near the school compound were crimes. The punishment was flogging, and trashing making to eat human excreta, molten lead putting into the ear and denying work etc. Not agreeing to sex was punishable with tonsure of head and parading naked through the street. For sex, there is no caste differentiation. The Hindu tailor did not stitch for the untouchable. garments thrown away by the upper class, clothed their bodies. Entering the school by untouchable was a great offense. For accusation of stealing, chopping of hand fingers, cutting the hand of the wrist were common. Dukhi’s wife Rupa used to steal small quantities of milk from cows in the night. She used to steal fruits, and on one occasion she was caught by the watchman and she had to undergo rape. Dukhi was aware of that but he had to feign ignorance to protect his wife.

Dukhi started to work in the nearby town as a cobbler. But he was not able to get enough work. A chance meeting with his Muslim friend Ashraf the tailor gave him work as a loading and unloading coolie in the railway yard under Ashraf’s uncle. The distance to the town was long and transport was unreliable.so he has to leave the job. It was the punishment meted out to his sons for entering the school compound, which prompted  Dukhi to take them to town and put them in the custody of Ashraf to learn tailoring. The conversion from Ishwar mochi and Narayan mochi to Darji was not acceptable to the higher caste in the village. in the olden days, punishment for stepping outside one’s caste was death. Dukhi was spared his life but he was allowed no more carcasses.No Work, No Food No Sons his wife lamented. It was more painful for her that they were staying with a  Muslim. Separation and distance cause sorrow.

Ashraf has taught the boys alphabet and numbers. It was necessary for their training. After the apprenticeship was over Narayan wanted to set shop at the village and Ishwar wanted to work in town. Due to partition riots, they were not able to go to the village. It was the boys who rescued Ashraf from an attacking  Hindu mob by changing the name board of the tailoring house and putting pictures of  Hindu gods. The hardware store, Hindu owner also supported them. Ashraf and the family had to hide. Initially, there was not enough work for Narayan. But word spread to nearby villages that a chamar has started stitching and work started to flow. Narayan was able to make a new hut within two years. He dug a well in the untouchable section of the village. And he was more prosperous than some high caste people. There was still anger and resentment on the Chamar’s accomplishment. When a  Bhangi came for stitching Narayan’s mother   Rupa objected to the same. Even  Dukhi sided with his wife. The caste feeling has percolated in everybody. A Chamar does not want to have a connection with a  Bhangi who carries the Excreta. It was the same case with Dowry also. Parents wanted to take Dowry but  Narayan did not want his in-laws at the mercy of the moneylender.

Narayan’s son Om Prakash was taught to read and write. He was taken to a tannery and taught skinning, curing, tanning and dyeing. it was to make him understand his ancestry and position in life. The school in town accepted higher and lower caste but it was not the case in the village. Now there was a new road and bus service to town. Even after 20 years of independence, the untouchables were not able to visit the temple or take water from the village well. Om Prakash was sent to town for studying tailoring. During elections, voters were not allowed to exercise their rights. They signed the register to show that they had voted and the ballot paper was signed by somebody else. Insistence to vote has cost Narayan and other family members their life.  Dukhi had warned   Narayan not to exceed the limit and fight with Thakur  Dharamsi,  the politician. Only Ishwar and Om were spared because they were in the town. Dina’s father Dr. Shroff’s decision to work in a rural area was not welcomed by her mother. She wanted her daughter to stop her father from going. But Dina was not ready to do it. Her father died of a snake bite. The fault of his death rested on the shoulders of his daughter. A son not following the profession of his father was unthinkable in society at that time. Dr. Shroff’s son  Nusswan didn’t study medicine but turned into business.

Nusswan becomes a successful businessman. He wants his sister to marry somebody from among his friends. But she is independent, headstrong, and indomitable. She finds a lover and is married to him. But tragedy struck on the third anniversary day in the form of a truck. She continues to stay in her husband’s rented house and the landlord wants to vacate her. so he send a notice for eviction. But the rent laws are in favor of her. For a living, she does needlework. In between, she tries to work as a hairstylist also. But fails in that attempt. When her eyesight was getting affected, she is able to get piece work of stitching clothes on a commission basis from an export company, through the good office her friend the hairstylist Zenobia. She refuses remarriage proposals brought by her Brother Nusswan. For him, it is a family prestige and also he will be blamed that he is not taking care of his sister.

Places can change people for better or worse. Development, roads, construction, all these can change people’s attitude towards life. Manek’s father losing all his properties during partition on the other side of the border, the only remaining asset being a general store in his own home building and having a formula of a famous kola. He is not receptive to changes. Don’t want to modernize his business or go for Advertising thus suffering loss in business. He does not allow his son even to change the pattern of the display of goods which causes dejection and rift in his son.  While Compulsorily sending his son to boarding school and afterward sending him to town for an air conditioning & refrigeration course, he was doing the same due to societal pressure and compulsion and also false pride. During all this time he and his wife wanted their son to be with them.

When hostel accommodation became unbearable, instead of calling his son back and handing over the shop, he was made paying guests with his mother’s friend Dina. Manek after completing the certificate course wanted to go for a three-year degree course. It was not acceptable to his parents, but when he was not able to get the admission for the same they felt cheated. With one of their friend’s recommendation  Manek gets a job in  DUBAI  and return to India after 8 years for attending his father’s funeral. Even after knowing his father was having colon cancer, he does not come home. The opening of a ready-made shop affects the business of Ashraf. He sends Ishwar and Om to his friend Nawaz at  Mumbai. They are not welcome there but still live six months behind a kitchen awning in the open ground. During this period they are not able to get the job of tailoring. Ishwar gets the job of cobbler for a fortnight. They also get three days of tailoring work during this period. Nawaz gives them the details of Dina for getting tailors jobs. They had to take their own sewing machines to Dina’s house for work. They hire two machines on installments. Finally, Nawaz takes them to a slum colony for residing. Even part of the advance money was given by Nawaz and the remaining amount to be given on weekly basis. Thus Nawaz gets rid of their nuisance.

It is in the slum colony that Ishwar and Om coming into contact with  Rajaram the hair collector who was earlier barber and also the monkey man. The monkey man had two monkeys Laila and Majnu. Tikku the dog was their companion. When the slum people were taken compulsorily to the prime minister’s meeting at a faraway place and returns the next day, the monkey man finds the monkeys killed and partly eaten by the dog. it infuriates him and he tries to kill the dog. The dog was saved on that day by the interference of other people but he succeeds to kill the dog at a later day. The monkey man afterward brings his niece and nephew for a balancing show by which he earns his lively hood. People object to his act but he has no other go for a  lively hood. Basically, he is a good chap and his love for the monkeys and loss of them make him senile to kill the dog which he loved also. In the name of beautification of the city and to prevent the growth of illegal slums, all structures are erased and the poor people lose their roof. Nawalkar the little crook working for the big crook Thokray, who controls everything in his area, country liquor, hashish, bhang. when there are riots the slumlord decides who burns and who survives. The land is owned by no one but the city. They bribe the municipality, police, water inspector, electricity officer. On slum clearance, Ishwar and om losing their hut, try to stay at the railway station platform in the night with their trunks. Dina reluctantly agrees to keep their trunks in her Veranda. om and Ishwar are forced to leave the railway platform and they shift to a 24×7 medicine shop entrance by bribing the watchman there.



The pavement dwellers are forcibly taken to the labor camp for the construction of a dam. Ishwar and  om were also taken to fill up the remaining quota. They meet Raja Ram and the monkey man in the labor camp. They develop a friendship with Shankar, the legless beggar. The facilitator, The police sergeant, the foreman at the worksite, project manager are all part of a crumbling, corrupt, social system. Everywhere there is a cut and kickback. The labor camp authorities sell crippled laborers to the Beggar master. Through Shankar, the beggar master’s pet, Ishwar and Om purchase their freedom at price to be given in installments and return to work for Dina.

Om’s and Ishwar’s misery in the labor camp was due to mistrust of Dina. She was not ready to let them sleep in the Veranda. while going to collect dress materials, she used to lock the house from outside. She was fearful that they will come to know of her business secret and thereby will lose her income. Once Om follows her on a rented bicycle but due to traffic jam was not able to find the place. Further, the Rent Law do not allow sub-letting and also commercial activity. She is having a paying guest and also two tailors at work. She has to keep the rent collector away from these people. The landlord’s goondas come and destroy Dina’s things and ask her to vacate the house. It was at this time beggar master appears in the scene. Only goondas can handle goondas. the beggar master becomes Dina’s protector, as he has to get his dues from Ishwar and   Om. Dina also gets compensation for the damages.

On knowing their hardships at the labor camp, and also due to her dire need of tailors for her source of income Dina is forced to allow them to stay in her house. She stops their practice of going for tea and lunch and provides them food. Ishwar in turn takes up the job of home cleaning. In the end, the four people become just like family. The three gentlemen cared about her, gave more respect than she had received from her relatives. It is due to them she has known what a family is. Vasant Rao Valmik, the advocate who craved peace and solitude had found it in proofreading. When the printing ink became an allergy to his eyes, he shifted his career to slogan making, arranging morchas and slogan shouting. This resulted in a throat problem and he had to turn to practice as morchas and demonstrations were banned in emergency by the government.

It is the excess enthusiasm of  Ishwar to get Om married that becomes a tragedy for them, Ashraf and Dina. For bride seeing, they go to the town near their village and by chance meets their adversary, The Thakur, The Politician. Om spits on Thakur’s face and he takes revenge by getting them to a family planning camp and sterilized. He forces the doctor -in-charge to remove the testicles of Om. Ishwar gets poisoned in his leg wound and had to amputate his leg. They become beggars. During the commotion in the market place, Ashraf gets injured and meets his death. When they go for Bride seeing,  Ishwar and om has promised to come back early for doing the tailoring job. Due to their absence, Dina loses her contract with the export company for stitching. in the meantime Manek returns to his home after completing the course.so Dina loses her paying guest income also. it is at this time that the beggar master gets killed by the monkey-man. with the death of the beggar master, Dina faces the threat of eviction by the landlord. Ibrahim the rent collector who has now become a beggar informs Dina about the eviction proceeds and asks her to get a court stay. That is how she meets  Vasant Rao  Valmik. But before filing the case, the landlord’s goons come with eviction notice along with the police sergeant Kesar. She at last takes refuge in her brother’s house. For all practical purposes, she becomes a housemaid to her brother.

It was while going to the college hostel, Manek meets the proofreader on the train. Likewise, he meets Ishwar And Om while going to Dina’s house for becoming paying guests. Rajaram the barber becoming a hair collector, family planning motivator and again returning to the profession of barber for hair collection, accidentally becoming a murderer then becoming Bal Bhaba with great following. The proofreader becoming assistant to Bal  Bhaba in the mail-order section, all these are unexpected becoming’s. How time, meetings, destination changes one’s fate is well described in the book. Life is like a chessboard play. You have to relinquish something to get some other thing. After  8 years from his departure to Dubai, Manek returns back to his home. at the airport, no taxi driver is ready to take him to the railway station even after offering double the rate. it was 1984 and the Sikh genocide is happening. at last, he gets a driver who takes him to the railway station by long and deserted routes. The clean-shaven, hair cut Sikh driver asks Manek not to keep his beard because he will be mistaken for Sikh and will be killed. He reaches home for his father’s funeral. The  Dastoor’s are not ready to do the death ceremony, because it was cremation. Their service was available only for  Zoroastrians bound for The Tower Of Silence. at last, he gets one to do the rituals, from a distant place.

The despair his father had felt as the familiar world slipped from around him, the valleys gashed and ugly, the woods disappearing, Manek feels guilt conscience. The rain after dispersing his father’s ash was soothing. He has missed rains in Dubai. Manic wanted to return back from Dubai and start the general stores again. it did not always have to end badly. He was going to prove it himself. But his visit to Dina changes everything. Avinash meeting his death during an emergency under custody. His three sister’s suicide on account of Dowry.  Ishwar and om becoming Beggars  Dina losing eyesight and living at the mercy of her brother all these things rattle him. Suicide becomes easy when the act acquires the beauty of logic and the weight of sensibleness. The tragic end of Manek is not accidental but of purpose. He becomes a pessimist and escapist whereas his other companions fight against the system. He is the replica of the educated Indian with moral consciousness but timid. He is not able to see light at the end of the tunnel.

There are different types of roads and different ways of walking on each. Life all seems meaningless bits and rags, till you piece it together. How circumstances make people to tolerate and adjust with other people. it is not one’s own actions that bear fruit. it also depends on other people’s actions. it is a chain of events with no control over their happening which decides the fate of somebody. Charles dickens used fiction to denounce the vices and evils of his age. Dickens wrote about life under industrial capitalism. Thomas hardy wrote on pessimistic themes. Destiny or fate is a leading theme in most of Thomas hardy’s fiction. He wrote about rural conditions. Hardy views the human characters as playing their parts against an indifferent and hostile backdrop.

Rohington  Mistry is more effective in third person speaking. This is evident if you compare his first book Tales from Phiroszhabagh which is in First Person with the Present Book. According to Pico Iyer the Indo-Japanese Writer, A Fine Balance is Contemporary Epic. The best novel of the 20th century which should adorn bookshelves along with Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Victor Hugo.




Book Reviewed by Vathukkat Krishnan Kutty.

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Vathukkat Krishnan KuttyAn Avid reader and knowledge seeker with a curious mind and descriptive skills.

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