A Fine Balance Summary
by Rohinton Mistry

Start Your Free Trial

Download A Fine Balance Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Fine Balance Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 anniversary, Rustom was run over and killed. Dina cannot live with her tyrannical brother. She returns to Rustom’s flat, starts a tailoring business, and, when her eyes begin to fail, she decides to find two tailors to work for her, though she must conceal them from the rent collector, since the flat is not supposed to be used except as a residence.

Narayan and Ishvar Darji were born in a rural village. As leatherworkers, their family belonged to the lowest Hindu caste, the untouchables, and were the prey of everyone from a higher caste. Determined to give them a better life, their father apprenticed them to a kindly Muslim tailor. Eventually the boys save their mentor from rioting Hindus. Narayan returns to his village, sets up shop, marries, and has a son, Omprakash, who eventually goes to town to be Ishvar’s apprentice. Thus Omprakash and Ishvar are not present when, after attempting to vote independent of the local political leader, Narayan is tortured and killed, and his whole family is burned to death. With their Muslim friend’s business declining, Omprakash and Ishvar go to the city, hear about Dina, and become her employees.

The fourth protagonist, Maneck Kohlah, is the son of one of Dina’s school friends, who with her husband runs a profitable general store in the north of India. After Maneck finishes college, he wants to return home and spend the rest of his life there. Meanwhile, he is far happier as Dina’s lodger than when he was living in the college dormitory.

At first, all goes reasonably well. Dina’s wholesaler accepts the garments that the tailors turn out; they find a slum shanty where they can live; and they seem to appreciate the kindnesses shown them by Dina and Maneck. Gradually the four become a family, and in that context, the others forgive even Omprakash’s periodic rebellions, as a family would the sullenness of a boy who is still young. However, the four of them fall prey to ambitious and corrupt government officials who take their cues from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency. The slum village where the tailors live is bulldozed. Then, just when Omprakash is about to return to his village to be married, he and his uncle are bused off to be forcibly sterilized. Ishvar loses his legs, Omprakash, his future, and both become beggars. Trapped by the rent collector, Dina loses her home and her business; she has to return to her brother and a life of drudgery. Maneck, too, abandons his dream. Having lost his faith in the human race, in life itself, he...

(The entire section is 1,229 words.)