About the Book With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recalls masters from Balzac to Dickens, this novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism of India. Set in 1975 at a time when the government has declared a state of internal emergency, the story focuses on the lives of four unlikely people who find themselves living in the same humble flat in the city.
A widow whose refusal to marry has left her struggling to earn a living as a seamstress; two tailors, who come to the city searching for employment; and a student from a small hamlet in the Himalayan foothills, whose father has sent him to attend college.
Through the dramatic and often shocking turns their lives take, we get an intimate view, not only of their world, but also of India itself in all its extraordinary variety. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.
About the Author Born in Bombay in 1952, Rohinton Mistry immigrated to Canada in 1975 and was employed in a Toronto bank. He began writing stories in 1983 while attending the University of Toronto. He won two Hart House literary prizes and Canadian Fiction Magazine's annual Contributor's Prize in 1985. In 1987, he published a collection of 11 short stories, Swimming Lessons, and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag (1987), which describes the daily lives of the inhabitants of a Bombay apartment complex.
Rohinton Mistry's first novel, Such a Long Journey, creates a vivid picture of Indian family life and culture as well as tells a story rich in subject matter, characterization and symbolism. It is set in 1971 Bombay, when India went to war over what was later to become Bangladesh. Mistry skillfully parallels public events involving Indira Gandhi with the misfortunes of the novel's principal characters. When Such a Long Journey was published in 1991, it won the Governor General's Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. It was short listed for the prestigious Booker Prize and for the Trillium Award. It has been translated into German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Japanese. Such a Long Journey was made into a movie in 2000, starring Om Puri and Roshan Seth.
A Fine Balance won the L.A. Times Book Award for Fiction, the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Canada's prestigious Giller Prize and was a 1996 Booker Prize Finalist.
Mistry lives with his wife in Toronto. His new novel, Family Matters, will be released by Knopf in 2002.
Interview with the Author Rohinton Mistry "I've been asked why I keep writing about India, and specifically Bombay, even though I left 26 years ago. It remains my focus and makes it all worthwhile because of the people...their capacity for laughter, their capacity to endure."
"Perhaps my main intention in writing this novel was to look at history from the bottom up, from the point of view of people like Ishvar and Om. The dispossessed. The hungry. The homeless. [I wanted to] see what it meant to them to live during this time of The Emergency."
Rohinton Mistry: An Unflinching Look Inside Bombay "I suppose anyone from the West landing in Bombay would first be hit by the crowds. The density of the population—14 million people in a small city and half of them living on the streets or in slums.
The next thing might perhaps be the great contract between wealth and poverty.
The problem of homelessness is worse now than in 1975, because the population has almost doubled. There must be twice as many people living on pavements, in slums and in rudimentary dwellings. People keep coming every day from villages because there is no prospect, they feel.
The street is controlled by the local gang leader who might extract some kind of token payment from a beggar or a pavement dweller. People lay claims to corners and pieces of the pavements just as they would to a sturdier dwelling.
Traffic in the streets of Bombay is chaotic at best. Riding a bicycle is a dangerous occupation. However, there are hundreds of them on the streets competing with the cars and buses and lorries because it is the poor man's mode of transport.
The train stations in Bombay are crowded. ... One needs to be physically fit to do the daily commute by train. People travel hanging out of trains, sitting on top of trains, and there are casualties every day."
Why has Mistry chosen not to name the Prime Minister or the City by the Sea, when they are easily identifiable? Does this affect your attitude toward the story?
Is Nusswan presented entirely as a villain, or does he have redeeming features? What are his real feelings toward Dina?
How does Dina's position within her family reflect the position of women in her culture and social class? What sorts of comparisons can you make between the roles and functions of women in India (as represented in this novel) and in America?
Post-Independence India has seen much religious and ethnic violence. How much of this hatred seems to be fomented by political leaders? Dukhi observes bitterly "that at least his Muslim friend treated him better than his Hindu brothers" [p. 115]. What does this say about ethnic and religious loyalties, as opposed to personal ones?
Most people seem indifferent or hostile to the Prime Minister and her Emergency policies, but a few characters, like Mrs. Gupta and Nusswan, support her. What does the endorsement of such people indicate about the Prime Minister? Can you compare the Prime Minister and her supporters with other political leaders and parties in today's world?
When Ishvar and Om are incarcerated in the labor camp, Ishvar asks what crime they have committed. "It's not a question of crime and punishment—it's problem and solution," says the foreman [p. 338]. If it is true that there is a problem—the vast number of homeless people and beggars on city streets—what would a proper and humane solution be?
Why does Avinash's chess set become so important to Maneck, who comes to see chess as the game of life? "The rules should always allow someone to win," says Om, while Maneck replies, "Sometimes, no one wins" [p. 410]. How do the events of the novel resemble the various moves and positions in chess?
Why do some, like Dina and Maneck, refuse to involve themselves in politics while others, like Narayan and Avinash, eagerly do so? Which position is the better or wiser one?
After Rustom's death, Dina's primary goal is self-reliance. But as the novel progresses, she begins to change her ideas. "We'll see how independent you are when the goondas come back and break your head open," Dina says to Maneck [p. 433]. Does she find in the end that real self-reliance is possible, or even desirable? Does she change her definition of self-reliance?
People at the bottom of the economic heap frequently blame so-called middlemen: people like Dina who makes her living through other people's labor, or like Ibrahim the rent collector. Do such middlemen strike you as making money immorally? Who are the real villains?
How would you sum up Beggarmaster? Is he ruthless, kind, or a bit of both? Does he redeem himself by his thoughtful acts and responsibilities? In a world this cruel, are such simple categories as "good" and "bad" even applicable?
When Beggarmaster draws Shankar, Shankar's mother, and himself, he represents himself as a freak just like the other two. What does his vision of himself tell us about him?
Dina tells Om, for example, "Two children only. At the most, three. Haven't you been listening to the family planning people?" [p. 466]. The government's birth control program is enforced with violence and cruelty, with sterilization quotas and forced vasectomies. Is a birth control policy a bad thing? How might family planning be implemented in a humane fashion?
It is not until her year with the tailors and Maneck that Dina again comes to know what a family might be. What constitutes a family? What other examples of unconventional "families" do you find in the novel?
Why do Ishvar, Om and Dina survive in their diminished ways while Maneck finally gives up? Is it due to something in their pasts, their childhoods, their families or their characters?
"People forget how vulnerable they are despite their shirts and shoes and briefcases," says Beggarmaster, "how this hungry and cruel world could strip them, put them in the same position as my beggars" [p. 493]. Does A Fine Balance show people's vulnerability, or their fortitude?
What effect is achieved by the novel's mildly comic ending, with Om and Ishvar clowning around at Dina's door? Is the ending appropriate, or off-balance?
The novel gives us a vivid picture of life for members of the untouchable caste in remote villages. Why might such an apparently anachronistic system have survived into the late twentieth century? Does it resemble any other social systems with which you are acquainted? Why do so few of its victims fight the system, as Narayan does? Why do so few leave the village: is it from necessity, social conservatism, or respect for tradition?
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How did this book touch your life? Can you relate to it on any level? What do you believe is the message the author is trying to convey to the reader?
Describe the character development in A Fine Balance. How does Rohinton Mistry use language and imagery to bring the characters to life?
In your opinion, is the book entertaining? Explain why or why not.
What did you learn from this book? Was it educational in any way?
In conclusion, summarize your reading experience with A Fine Balance. What grade would you give this novel?
If you enjoyed this book, what other books would you recommend to fellow readers?
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Featured Review Posted by asha66: I was born and raised in [Bombay] and saw a lot of the things around me that the author writes about...the slum life... the injustice of the caste system but most of all, the strength of the human spirit in India which never ceases to amaze me. We don't need a Dr Phil to tell us that bad things happen and to GET OVER IT, we just do. ... It might be hard for American readers to comprehend this, but we learn to look at the quilt of life as a whole and not in its patches. ... I would definitely recommend the book to others and I hope they can all look beyond the corruption, filth and adversity and see that the book is more about the human spirit and its struggle to prevail under any circumstances.