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A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

October 6, 2009

A Fine Balance is set in India during the Emergency of 1975 to 1977, a controversial time in the history of independent India when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a state of emergency bestowing upon him the power to rule by decree, and suspending elections and civil liberties. While the political history is intimidating, this book presents a ground-up view of what life in India was like during this tumultuous time when arbitrary detention by the police was common, thousands of men underwent forced vasectomies and low-income housing and slums were destroyed without notice. Before I read this book I had no knowledge of this period in India’s history and the book guided me through how it affected people’s lives as if I were living it – since I too had no idea what to expect next from the government.

Mistry follows the lives of four people from different backgrounds whom circumstance throws together and who support each other through the chaos. Dina Dalal is a fiercely independent widow whose husband died during their first years of marriage and who hopes to support herself on her own despite her brother’s incessant prodding to remarry; Ishvar and Omprakash, an uncle and nephew, are from an untouchable caste and have changed their fate by learning to become tailors instead of leatherworkers as their caste dictates; and Maneck is a college student from a mountain village with idealistic views of the future. All four find themselves sharing Dina’s apartment as a workspace and dormitory since Dina needs the rent money to survive. Although their relations are defined in the beginning by class differences, the four eventually grow very close.

What I enjoyed most about this book were the varied and unusual characters that populate the fringes of the story – a street performer who loves his monkey like a child, a destitute slum dweller who makes a living collecting hair clippings, a conflicted rent collector who has to bully for his job but is a kind person inside… The main characters are also crafted very well and Mistry takes his time developing their personalities and histories. Understanding the background of the Emergency can give some clues as to what happens, but the characters themselves are the true reason to read this. If I was going to be picky I would say the only modification I would make to the book is maybe taking out the Epilogue. While it does answer so many questions about what happens after the main events, I wish Mistry had left it up to our imagination…

Warning: do not read the Wikipedia article about the book since it gives away the ending!

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