A Fine Balance
Rohinton Mistry took an unflinching look inside India during The Emergency and brought a new cultural awareness to our lives. Read the highlights from our on-air discussion.

Oprah: Has anybody read a book like this before? I've never encountered pages that took me so far, and removed me from my own way of life and way of thinking the way A Fine Balance did. Rohinton [Mistry] has been compared to [Charles] Dickens in his finest years when he was able so profoundly to look at the human spirit juxtaposed against the inhumane conditions. What brought you to A Fine Balance?

Rohinton: In some ways, A Fine Balance was just another book for me. An attempt to tell a good story. And that's what I like to do. Why did I select that time period, The Emergency? I suppose it was because I had just finished a novel which was set four years earlier. I thought the next important watershed in Indian history is 1975—The Emergency. And it would be interesting to see what happened, how people lived and how their lives were really impacted by that.

Oprah: I was just thinking, that's the year I graduated from college. ... We were all in our own little worlds in 1975, not even, I know for a number of people in this country, aware, conscious, or in any way connected to what was going on in 1975.

Carlyn: When I started reading this book, ... I felt a little bit of shame that I knew so little. Like September 11 for me, it just knocked me out of my little bubble of my life and put me in a whole other place.

Oprah: That's why I felt it was important for us to do this book now. ... After September 11, I started taking more time for myself. I read it and thought, "This will do, in some ways, what September 11 has done. Take us out of our own little shell. Expose us to a whole other world out there going on beyond our backyards." And it did exactly that. Carlyn picked up the book and realized there's a whole other country out there.

The caste system in India

Meet the discussion members!

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The Caste System in India

Mohammed: In India, I have friends who are of a different caste, who will not eat at the same table with me. They'll come to my house, but they will not eat food in my house.

Madhavi: When my grandmother came to visit, and people would come to our house, she would put their silverware and their plates in a separate place. She said, "This is not something that I'm going to eat out of."

Mohammed: I know a family where they have a Brahmin cook. She's from a merchant class. That is the top, the head honcho in the caste system. [The cook] will not allow the lady of house to enter the kitchen because she will defile the kitchen.

Oprah: This is 2002. The caste system is still in place right now in Bombay?

Mohammed: Not so much in the large cities. But in the providences he described, it is there.

Rohinton: The caste system, of course, is in place everywhere.

Oprah: How does everybody know which caste you're in?

Rohinton: In cities, you don't, because money is the big thing.

Mohammed: But in villages, you know by the names, by the trades that they perform, where they live, all those little indicators.

Oprah: So once born a laborer, you're in the laborer caste system, you can never be anything else?

Rohinton: Exactly.

What about population control in India?

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Population Control in India

Oprah: So was Indira Gandhi right in trying to control the population?

Mohammed: Yes, of course she was right. Something had to be done with the population. But the way she went about it, the system that tried to promote this was corrupt. And the officials, all they want to do is make money out of this.

Oprah: So they were taking men and then ... sterilized.

Mohammed: Vasectomies. Yes.

Oprah: Did a lot of people volunteer?

Rohinton: No, it wasn't ever very popular. That's why they had to resort to this. Only 3,000 people in New Delhi were given vasectomies against their will. But if you look at the people who suffered from it, it's not a small number. We have to leave the accounting to one side, sacrifice our fondness for numbers, and look to the human cost.

Rohinton Mistry's gift to the reader

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Rohinton Mistry's Gift to You

Oprah: What did you want the reader to receive? What was your hope? Your expectation? Your intent? Were they all the same? Or were they all different?

Rohinton: I always feel that every response from [each of] my readers is equally vaild. Having said that, I will say that if people can see in the book the importance of family, the human need for family—and by family I don't mean blood relations, I mean people—that is what redeems everything, ultimately.

Carlyn: I get a sense of family, just with us sitting here. We're a family for these moments. But we're all connected...how important it is to feel that way with each other.

Oprah: It's different, though, when you have to open your home, your porch, your veranda, to someone who you didn't even think was in your touching zone [caste]. That's a whole bigger thing.

Rohinton: It's a big stretch, what you just mentioned. It's a big stretch. And many big stretches will reduce the amount of injustice in the world. There's no other way than making the big stretch.

Who is the true villain in A Fine Balance?

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Who Is the True Villain?

Madhavi: This book was really hard for me. I felt like everyone who struggled and tried in this book failed. And I had a hard time understanding, because I can't get through my day thinking that no matter what you do, it isn't going to help in the end. ... And the fact that no one is responsible. There's no clear villain!

Rohinton: The system was out of control. And it went out of control because the rule of law was suspended in a bad move by Indira Gandhi, a brilliant person, a good leader, who did a lot of good for the country. But I think when The Emergency was declared, she had become frustrated by the obstacles presented by this slow and messy and tedious process of democracy. We have to admit that democracy is messy. But it's the only way, or you see what happens. ... The villain is injustice. And that's the villain anywhere in the world where there is discontent and suffering.

Try some discussion questions of your own!

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