Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Mistry’s second novel, A Fine Balance, is a long, complex work, with four protagonists and a variety of settings. Moreover, although most of the events in the novel take place in the mid-1970’s, there are also lengthy passages tracing the early lives of the major characters, thus placing them within the context of their families and their communities. These accounts are also important because they explain why the three men left home to come to what is assumed to be the city of Bombay and also why the widow, Dina Dalal, whose older brother has a home there, is living alone, attempting to support herself.
The first chapter of A Fine Balance is devoted to Dina. She was born Dina Shroff, the daughter of a Parsi physician, a good man too idealistic to have earned much money or to have saved anything for the future. Dina’s brother, Nusswan, who is eleven years her senior, viewed his father with contempt; by the time he was sixteen, Nusswan had already decided to go into business and spend his life looking after himself. By contrast, Dina wanted to be a doctor just like her father, and she was bright enough to fulfill her dream. However, when Dr. Shroff died on one of his mission trips to a remote area, Nusswan took charge. There was no question of further schooling. Dina became the household drudge. Then she met and married Rustom Dalal, a pharmacist. They made a home together and were blissfully happy. However, on their third...
(The entire section is 712 words.)
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Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance (1996) continues the exploration of the relationship between Parsi and Hindu communities which the author began with his previous novel, Such a Long Journey (1991). The book was generally well-received by critics and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. However, like Mistry's other works, it has also sparked some controversy for its representation of the Parsi community and of India in general. Mistry, himself a Parsi who emigrated from Bombay (Mumbai) to Canada exactly during the historical events fictionalized in A Fine Balance, has been accused of adopting an excessively Westernized point of view when describing Indian life. Contrary to the magic realism adopted by most of his contemporary postcolonial writers, Mistry has decidedly opted for a more traditional form of realism that often intertwines descriptions of spiritual rites with detailed observations of urban filth, violence, begging and sadism.
A Fine Balance, whose epigraph pays homage to the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, the father of nineteenth-century realism, mostly takes place in Bombay in the 1970s at the time of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's declaration of the State of Emergency. The political turmoil and the hardship that characterised the era are vividly represented in the novel which follows the lives of four disenfranchised characters. Dina is a Parsi widow who tries to maintain her independence from her overbearing brother by starting a tailor's shop in her own flat. Unable to do all the work alone, she hires Ishvar and Omprakash, two untouchables whose efforts to escape the constraints of the caste system have brought them to the city. To face the ever-increasing costs of urban life, Dina also accepts a lodger, Maneck, a Parsi students sent to the city to study engineering. The four characters of this unlikely group suddenly find themselves bridging their social, cultural and religious differences to support each other. The "fine balance" of the title is thus the frail equilibrium that the characters have been able to create and that gives them a shelter, however precarious that may be, from the rough circumstances surrounding them. Although it ends with a tragic epilogue set just after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the novel celebrates the human strength to establish bonds that challenge traditional ideas of religious communities and social status.