A Fine Balance

by Rohinton Mistry

Hardcover, 2001

Call number

FIC MIS

Collection

Publication

Knopf (2001), Edition: 4th, 624 pages

Description

A portrait of India featuring four characters. Two are tailors who are forcibly sterilized, one is a student who emigrates, and the fourth is a widowed seamstress who decides to hang on. A tale of cruelty, political thuggery and despair by an Indian from Toronto, author of Such a Long Journey.

Media reviews

Rohinton Mistry needs no infusions of magical realism to vivify the real. The real world, through his eyes, is quite magical enough.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Joycepa
When I first started this book, I thought it was going to another one of those multi-generational epics set in a particular time period, which seems to be a popular them among current Indian writers of every generation. Instead, what I found and was totally absorbed by, was a massive, detailed, and
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utterly fascinating story of the lives of four people who have been thrown together by the exigencies of the time--the 70s and 80s under the tyrannical, corrupt, reign of terror of Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, who was the then-Prime Minister.

Dina Dalal is a 30 year old widow in an unnamed city by the sea (most likely Bombay) struggling to preserve her independence with a small piece-work business making women’s dresses. With failing eyesight, she hires two tailors, Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash Darji; in addition she rents space to Maneck Kohlah, a university student from the mountains of India’s north. By accident and force of circumstance, all four wind up living together in Dina’s tiny apartment during a period of terrorist activity on the part of the police under Gandhi’s Emergency Act. Despite their best efforts, Ishvar and Om are caught up in caste and religious violence, police raids, and Maneck discovers the perils of opposition to the regime’s policies.

The story is a wonderful combination of the love that eventually arises among these four very unlikely friends and the description of the brutality, corruption and cynicism that infected every part of Indian life during Indira Gandhi’s despotism. But it is also an exploration of the unlikely ways that people are connected, many times through total strangers met by “happenstance”. It is an evocation of the concept of Indra’s Net, a Buddhist concept of the infinite interconnectedness of all existence, symbolized by a net at whose nodes are jewels; pluck just one thread of the net, and all the jewels vibrate.

This is a beautifully written book, fascinating in its description of everyday lives both in a large city and in villages, of relationships between and among ordinary people, and the terrors of political and civil oppression. Nothing is romanticized--not the lives of the people or the people themselves, yet the characters are completely empathetic, despite their flaws.

Don’t miss this one.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
What to say, A Fine Balance is brilliant, and its length only a small obstacle.
I was very surprised at how quickly I moved through 50-page chunks of this story as I became engrossed in the lives of several unfortunate citizens of an un-named Indian city during the official Emergency of 1975. What a
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cast of characters: A widow, determined to be independent and not to remain under the thumb of her older brother; a college student with an unclear vision of his own future; 2 tailors who have broken caste restrictions that would have kept them competing for animal carcasses and immersed in tanning chemicals as their fathers and grandfathers before them; a beggar mutilated as a child to make him more profitable to the Beggarmaster; the Monkey Man, whose street performances required a very fine sense of balance indeed. These lives intertwine in ways variously beneficial, detrimental, and tragic. There is little fairness, justice or order during the Emergency, and almost no basis for hope or dreams. In fact, very few of these people have any hopes for themselves beyond basic survival. They seem unsophisticated, fatalistic, almost simple-minded, to the Western reader, and have no points of references with the world beyond their limits. Sleeping in a doorway under the protection of a night watchman becomes a privilege to be held dear. People disappear regularly, victims of government round-ups for “supportive” crowds at an appearance by the Prime Minister, or for impressed labor, or even for involuntary sterilization. Although the college student’s parents, in their remote and, by contrast, idyllic, mountain home have dreams for their son and the elder tailor has dreams of marriage and children for his nephew, neither young man is able to share or even pretend enthusiasm for these hopeful imaginings. The reality of their existence is too forceful, the government presence and control too pervasive. As Maneck the student observes when asked if he believes that God is dead: "I prefer to think that God is a giant quiltmaker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don't fit well together anymore, it's all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it." As grim as it all is, there are moments of kindness, compassion and connection among the principals, as they occasionally find that balance between hope and despair that keeps the human spirit alive. "There is always hope--hope enough to balance our despair. Or we would be lost." Despite a few touches of dark humor, there is no doubt that reading this book is a heart-wrenching experience. As the 4 main characters come to care for one another, the reader comes to care for them, and to dread the inevitability of the college student’s repeated observation that everything always ends badly. With a bit more lightness, this would have been a 5-star read for me. But then it would have been slightly less brilliant, perhaps.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
This beautiful novel, set in India in 1975, expores the notion of "fine balance" in several different dimensions: the fine balance of keeping people in their caste; the fine balance of prosperity vs. poverty; the fine balance between love and loss. There are four principal characters: Dina Dalal, a
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widow with unconventional views; Maneck, a college student; and Ishvar and Om, two tailors from a remote village. To achieve financial independence from her brother, Dina takes in Maneck as a boarder, and hires the tailors to run a clothing business. The tailors were the most fascinating characters in this novel. Their chosen profession did not come without some cost to their family: What the ages had put together, Dukhi had dared to break asunder; he had turned cobblers into tailors, distorting society's timeless balance. Crossing the line of caste had to be punished with the utmost severity...(p. 147) To make their way in the world, Ishvar and Om lived in severe poverty, and repeatedly overcame obstacles necessary for basic survival.

The caste differences were, at first, a barrier between Dina, Maneck, and the tailors. But as the four spent more and more time together in Dina's small flat, they came to appreciate one another. They provided both tangible and emotional support. Dina, in particular, found a way out of the loneliness that had plagued her since becoming a widow. The deep relationships between the characters were uplifting, and formed their own "fine balance" against the many sad and depressing scenes in this book.

I loved the structure of this novel. It begins with a prologue, that shows how the characters come to know one another. Then Mistry takes the reader deep into the lives of each character, beginning with Dina, exploring her childhood and marriage. Mistry vividly describes Maneck's parents and the rural setting of his childhood. A full understanding of the tailors comes by going back a full generation to reveal their parents' life and values. Mistry relates each character's story up to the point where their lives intersect, sometimes presenting the same events from different points of view.

A Fine Balance is a must-read!
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LibraryThing member scribblerjee
This came to me highly recommended, but I found it overly earnest and heavy-handed. It presents an uncompelling woe-is-me vision of India as dirt and caste warfare and sterilisation, an I-live-in-Canada-now condemnation of the vile and superstitious and unjust.

It is almost unremittingly humourless
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and reads like a catalogue of horrors, populated by unlovably virtuous types who inevitably suffer (although the 'real' disabled character is a mindless caricature). Tradition means burning uppity Untouchables alive, but modernity is no better - roads destroying Kashmir's beauty, slum clearances, and Sanjay Gandhi's forced sterilisation campaigns.

Cheerless and self-righteous, perhaps well written, but haven't we heard all this before? After 600 pages I wanted to put them out of their misery myself.
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LibraryThing member evilmoose
Wow. Beautiful, brutal and heart breaking, this is an amazing book. Interwoven lives, the stories of families, of families created from friends, the horrible way we sometimes treat those we perceive as different, and whether that treatment can be an integral part of our belonging to a group. The
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battles everyone fights. Delicious food. Suffering, poverty, hardship, injustice and mistreatment. And the fine balance between hope and despair in India in the 1970s.

Also, I listened to this as an audiobook read by John Lee. I'd only ever heard him read China Mieville before, so I wasn't sure if it would work for me - I'm used to him being 'weird'. But he was fantastic, and I think he's up among my favourite narrators now.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
A Fine Balance

I have always loved John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and now many years later I feel like I have come across the Indian version, amazing stories of hope and endurance, living off the barest of essentials. It was a pleasure to be immersed in this wonderful piece of literature.
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For about a month I relished the chiseled out time I made to return to the lives of Dina, Malech and the two tailors. Rohinton Mistry was able to convey life during India’s Emergency years, 1975-85 , through the backgrounds and experiences of these four memorable characters. In the words of Vasantrao Valmik, a proof reader/ attorney, there is "A Fine Balance" between hope and despair and this fragile thread holds true for our main characters. In addition the cast of sub characters-- from the beggarmaster, to the legless beggar, to the hair collector, to the sinister government enforcer- bring extraordinary background and texture to the plot. Their stories are fascinating and sadly believable. There was a lot of stressful events going on in my life during the time that I was reading this novel, and I have to say that experiencing the desparate stories of these characters made my problems a bit less consuming. I guess escaping into the tradegy of others helped to put my current events into a proper perspective.
I included a google summary here to provide a bit more background:

With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers--a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village--will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
"After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents-a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life."

Set in 1975 in an unidentified Indian city, Mrs. Dina Dalal, a financially pressed early 40's Parsi widow, is
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determined to keep her independence from her bullying brother's influence, decides to take in a paying boarder, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a Parsi school chum, and hires two Hindu tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, to sew dresses for an export company. Gradually Dina's apartment is transformed, initially into a sweat shop and finally into a home full to bursting point.

Each of the four main characters is a refugee from one thing or another. Dina seeks to escape from the suffocating strictures imposed upon respectable, single, ageing women. Maneck, the paying boarder, has been sent down from the hill country to attend college in an attempt to get a qualification and entry into "an industry that would grow with the nation's prosperity."

In contrast he tailors, Ishvar and Om, are refugees from caste, communal and institutional violence. Om, 17, is the son of Ishvar's murdered brother, and Ishvar, in his 40's, who has never married, has dedicated his life to being father-protector to his nephew. Living from hand to mouth, at the mercy of the social upheavals. Each time they are beaten down, they are forced to pick themselves up and start over. Dina's apartment becomes a haven for the tailors.

As the four start sharing their life stories, then meals, then living space they become an unconventional family where background and caste becomes irrelevant but there will be no happy endings because what follows is misfortune and catastrophe.

Balance is obviously in the title but is also central to the book. No doubt the story is a little coloured by the author's own political leanings but is possibly also an indictment of Mrs. Gandhi's regime. Similarly the author treads a fine line between the past and the present, between foreground and background, and between haves and have nots. Generally the haves come out of this very poorly, being cruel and uncaring whereas the have nots are almost heroic in their struggles to survive.

The characters, in particular Dina and Ishvar, are fully rounded and beautifully drawn, and you feel their joy and their despair. The secondary characters are interesting and add colour and interest. My only fear it that for many of the country's inhabitants little has really changed in the intervening years.

To read this is is to experience an absolute roller-coaster of emotions. There is sorrow and joy, tears and laughter, hope and despair. At the end I felt emotionally drained but thoroughly enjoyed it.

"The human face has limited space. If you fill it with laughter there will be no room for crying."
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LibraryThing member thelotustree
This book turned me inside out and had me choking back tears on my morning commute. The characters touched me, infuriated me, and brought the story to life for me. This is one of those few books out there that was cathartic and profoundly moving.

The story is long, and if you're not familiar with
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India and Indian literature, probably not overly easy to first settle into but it is well worth the work. The tragedies and turmoils are bittersweet and the story leaves you with hope even in times of darkness.

By far Mistry's chef d'oeuvre thus far.
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LibraryThing member gbill
Truly brilliant, feeling a little bit like a throwback to “classic” novel forms, and very well written by Rohinton Mistry. Put simply, it tells the story of a widowed tailor and three men who come into her life: a student sent to the city to go to college who rooms with her, and a lower-caste
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uncle and his nephew she employs. It’s set during 1970’s India and the country’s period of “Emergency” under Indira Gandhi, and has sociopolitical commentary about the rampant corruption, suspension of civil liberties, and cruelty of the forced sterilization program. In telling the backstories for the characters, it goes back to the Independence and Partition of India, as well as the religious violence that ensued. The two tailors who come to work for the widow, for example, have had their families murdered in barbarous ways.

I loved the way Mistry brought these characters into the story in layers, telling their backstories after we’ve already seen glimpses of them and formed first impressions. In seeing their own struggles with life afterwards, we feel greater understanding and empathy, and get the powerful realization that this is how it is with the people in real life, that despite how they may be rubbing us the wrong way, they each have their own story and demons they’re wrestling with.

There is a lot of grit to this novel, as the characters struggle with poverty and the unspeakable violence they witness. There is also a great deal of cynicism expressed in human nature and the political process. While it may be weighty in places, Mistry offsets this with fantastic bits of humor in the dialogue, which feels natural and alive. It’s the story of the struggle of good people in the face of these things, and indeed, the title, as expressed by one character, is in the need to “maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” I’m not sure I completely bought the ending, but it certainly doesn’t fall into the trap of sentimentality, and is powerful.

Quotes:
On God:
“I prefer to think that God is a giant quiltmaker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.”

Later, on this same quilt, and its various pieces connected to personal events, and symbolic of life:
“That’s the rule to remember, the whole quilt is much more important than any single square.”

On life:
“After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents – a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life.”
And later:
“In fact, that is the central theme of my life story – loss. But isn’t it the same with all life stories. Loss is essential. Loss is part and parcel of that necessary calamity called life.”

On memories:
“Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be re-created – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.”

On politicians, my doesn’t this sound familiar:
“…I knew the blather and bluster favoured by professional politicians. My modus operandi was simple. I made up three lists: Candidate’s Accomplishments (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendoes, and lies), and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better). Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was – a brand-new speech.”
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LibraryThing member KeetabiKeeda
“If all beggars have the same injury, public gets used to it and feels no pity. Public likes to see variety. Some wounds are so common, they don’t work any more. For example, putting out a baby’s eyes will not automatically earn money. Blind beggars are everywhere. But blind, with eyeballs
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missing, face showing empty sockets, plus nose chopped off – now anyone will give money for that. Diseases are also useful. A big growth on the neck or face, oozing yellow plus. That works well”

I remember being taught about the concept of comic relief in my literature course while studying Shakespeare. I used to find that trivial and somewhat unnecessary. Part of the reason was that I was never able to see the tragedy in those epics. People used to get what they deserved, there was an underlying logic in all those stories ranging from a dying Macbeth, a lunatic Lear or even a delusional Willy Loman . ‘A Fine Balance’ on the other hand is a tragedy with a capital t. It may not confirm to the Aristotle’s Poetics, but that is hardly relevant to the times we live in. A sense of despair, worthlessness and your inability to do anything looms large over this story. There were times when I wanted some character to blurt out a joke, I wanted Mistry to bring a Fool from somewhere and slow down the things, I wanted all the good moments to come at once. It is at that point I understood why we need something like a comic relief. It would have been maddening to read ~640 pages of gist of ‘A Fine Balance’.

‘A Fine Balance’ is probably among the the best written books I have read so far. It is a story detailing the intermingling of the lives of 4 diverse characters. Dina Dalal is a strong, likes-to-be independent woman who is not ready to live on the alms thrown by her brother. Maneck is a 17 year old boy, who moves to city for a diploma and stays with Dina as a paying guest. Om and Ishvar are two tailors, who after shunning their caste profession of chamaar, have come to city for some work. Throughout their lives, they meet various small characters who enrich their lives with symbols. “The lives of the poor were rich in symbols” as Mistry points out.

The book is set up in the post-independence emergency time in India. People are forced to undergo birth-control measures, the rules are twisted to favor certain sections of the society, the atrocities committed by the higher castes on the lower castes hardly ever get noticed, beggars and homeless are swept off the streets in the name of beautification program, family planning commission are being run by a bunch of mafia guys and there is rampant corruption in every government office. Mistry has described the caste prejudices of those times in such a gruesome fashion that you wonder how could humans fall to such extents of depravity. “Molten lead being poured into the ears of those who happened to hear the temple shlokas, burning coals placed on the tongues of those who wanted to vote in elections, people made to eat someone’s feces for being late at work”

Do not read ‘A Fine Balance’ if you are planning to go on a nice relaxing weekend, you will end up in depression for many days.
Read ‘A Fine Balance’ because there are stories in it which need to be heard, and which hold the potential to change you as a person.

PS: I am not very sure whether people who are not familiar with Indian settings of those days would appreciate some of the vernacular remarks used in the book.
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
A Fine Balance is the story of four vibrant but unlikely characters who come together to form a family of their own making in order to overcome their individual hardships in 1970s India. Dina, a young widower, and Maneck, a younger student, are of the same social caste. Their lives become entwined
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with those of Ishvar and Om, tailors of the “untouchables” class. The country is beleaguered by widespread political corruption. The Emergency, declared by the government, perpetrates unfathomable caste violence, thereby ensuring the dominant caste is not “polluted” by society’s lower castes.

What I Liked: Mistry is a fine writer; his prose is powerful yet approachable. The characters are wonderfully rich – full of personality and idiosyncrasies, eminently likeable and relatable.

What I Disliked: I don’t think the novel needed to be so long. It tended to occasional rambling, which I found detracted from the story line, and was distracting.

Favourite Quote: The four main characters have created a quilt from fabric scraps collected from each day’s tailoring. Each of the quilt’s squares is resplendent with memory: “Calling one piece sad is meaningless. See, it is connected to a happy piece – sleeping on the verandah. And the next square – chapatis. Then that violet tusser, when we made masala wada and started cooking together. And don’t forget this georgette patch … the whole quilt is more important than any single square.” (568)

At its heart, A Fine Balance is a human story. Well worth the read.
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LibraryThing member KendraRenee
This is the best book I have read in awhile. 700+ pages were no obstacle: I finished it within days. Mistry has that true author's touch so invisible to the reader's eye, that he yanks him/her right into the midst of the story itself. He doesn't flinch from reality--this book is chock-full of
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heart-wrenching, depressing stuff--but at the same time, his overarching message is one of perseverance and the inherent value of LIFE. Characters like Ishvar, Om, Dina, and Maneck will stay with me for a very very long time, because I learned something from each one of them about how life probably ISn't but SHOULD BE.

Thanks to Mistry and his unbelievable talents, I now understand India and, with it, the world far better than I did before I first came across this book.
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LibraryThing member thedenathome
Review of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry,

Sadly, I must admit that this book should be considered a classic. Although the plot, characterization and writing all contribute to an easy, enjoyable read, the events of this story caused me to shudder, not at the inventiveness of the author at creating
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such horrific acts, but rather at the inhumanity of man. Mistry has given a taste of India of the 1970’s that will not soon be forgotten.
This fictional work is a tour de force, a novel to change hearts and minds. Mistry uses the history of the period as a backdrop to the quiet lives of desperation of the lives of the lower classes and castes of Indian society. Mistry masterfully weaves the intertwining stories of the primary and secondary characters of this distopic, though realistic vision of India. The corruption of local and national politics, the power of the upper castes and their disdain for the lower, the different regions of north and central India, the subtleties of how life is lived by people struggling to maintain a certain level of success and privilege and the complexities of ordinary people dealing with the life that has befallen them, all of this and more are shaped, molded, carved and hammered into your consciousness by the end of this magisterial work.
By the end of the story, by the time you have lived and breathed the rarified air of the high country, sweltered in the heat and humidity of the slums; by the time you have been gobsmacked by the brutality and utter ruthlessness of those in power and how the machinery of state down to the lowliest of bureaucrats and those on the outside of that level who still try to worm a living out of the desperation of the poor and oppressed; by the time you have felt the desperation of Dinabai, Ishvar, Omprakash and Maneck, you will be sobered, challenged, and perhaps, like me, stunned by the trials of the characters Mistry has depicted before your eyes.
The blurb on the back cover of my copy is, for once, not hyperbole, and gives a factual account of the contents;
“Set against the emergency measures imposed by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s, the novel follows the lives of four unlikely people as they struggle “to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.”…
A Fine Balance is a warning about the human terrors that await a society without compassion. It is also, at the same time, a testimony to the enduring greatness of the human spirit.”
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Four disparate lives join in one small modest flat in a "city by the sea" in India circa 1975: Dina, a young widow trying to maintain her independence; Manech, a young college student from a Himilayan hill town who rents a room from her; Ishvar, a middle-aged tailor who hails from a caste of
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leather workers in a poor village; and Om (Ishvar's 17-year-old nephew), an apprentice tailor. It is a time of unrest in India and the events that unfold outside their tiny flat have profound effects on them.

The book is at times humorous, and at other times horrific. Mistry tells a compelling story.
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LibraryThing member Lenaphoenix
Mistry is a great storyteller and an amazing writer. But I can only give this book three stars because I was really, really unhappy with the ending. Instead of maintaining “a fine balance between hope and despair,” this book shoved me firmly over the edge into despair.
LibraryThing member LynnB
A Fine Balance is the story of Dina, widowed at a young age and refusing to live under the care (and thumb) of her brother. It is also the story of Maneck, a young student from the mountains who rents a room from her. And of Om and Ishvar, two tailors from the untouchable caste who work for Dina.
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It is the story of how they come to be a family, and how that family almost endures.

This is a long book -- over 800 pages -- which is very well written. It could have been shorter, but that would have taken away from the sense of really living with these characters.

This is a very sad book, with one catastrophe after another befalling the main characters. There is no happy ending. As a college roommate's poster said "Life is hard, and then you die."

Masterful writing, many multidimensional characters, this book really gives you a sense of what life in India during "the troubles" was like. How I wish our heroes had overcome it all -- but that would have turned this book into a fairy tale, rather than the very real story it is.
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LibraryThing member philipblue
Sometimes a novel can help you to understand an issue much better than a slew of academic studies. 'A Fine Balance' presents such a vivid and compelling view of poverty in India, that you come away feeling that you have learned what it is like to be poor. Ok, this is probably an exaggeration, but
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Mistry's book really does add depth to the literature, fiction and non-fiction, about poverty. In it we see an almost Dickensian world, characters full of detail and a healthy dose of condemnation and despair at the factors and people responsible for this sorry situation.

The villains in the piece are variously the caste system, disastrous government policies, plain bad luck, and many others. These have all been well-studied, but Mistry's achievement is to allow his readers to really empathise with people who find themselves on the receiving end of these things. As his characters struggle through daily life, trying to make the best of what they've got, they are constantly pulled down, their efforts coming to nothing.

Above all, this is an extraordinarily sad book, poignant and affecting. If you want to understand what poverty is really like, read this book.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
Do not miss reading this book. I was completely immersed in the plot and characters of this book from the beginning. I rarely think that a book merits a five-star rating, but this is a true treasure. I learned a lot about India and its politics as an adjunct to the lives of the characters. There
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was no sermonizing, moralizing or self-pity; however, our limited understanding of the condiitons under which they lived made their actions and reactions very real. I found the writing to be tight and exactly right for the tone of the book - no spare sentiments that weren't necessary to achieve the required insights. The ending is superlative - it is the way the book had to end in order to complete our knowledge of the lives that were lived. The utter despair is beyond comprehension for those of us who live with a sense of security. It will be difficult to find a worthy successor now that I have finished this remarkable book.
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LibraryThing member judelbug
This is a hefty, provocative, spell binding tale, where the reader wades into the very fine balance that exists between the absolute horrific despair of poverty and India's caste system, and the unique wealth of human spirit that keeps you reading from one calamity to the next. A true masterpiece,
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and one of the best reads of my life.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
[A Fine Balance] is a sweeping drama of four people who unexpectedly end up living together during a tumultuous year, 1975, in India. Dina is a middle-aged widow desperately trying to hang on to her independence, despite her brother's efforts to get her to re-marry. Maneck is a young man in the
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city to attend college, who left his beautiful mountain town at his parents' behest to try to better his life. The student hostel is so disgusting that he ends up renting a room from Dina, who is a distant family friend. And then there are Ishvar and Omprakash, who are tailors that end up working for Dina out of her apartment. They were also living in a rural town where their family had been on the rise out of their lower caste. But misfortunes keep arising to keep them down. The four will spend a year together during a State of Emergency declared by the Prime Minister that upends life for the lower classes in some truly horrifying and gruesome ways.

The book is grim and has moments of utter despair, pure bad luck, and unfairness. There are despicable characters, horrible deaths, and plenty of squalor. Usually I can't stomach a book like this. However, Mistry somehow balances this with some good, some lighthearted moments, and impressive writing. I was completely invested from the first chapter and just had to see where it was all going to end up. I don't think, in a book like this, it's a spoiler to say that things do not end well for all the characters. It's clear from the get go that a book this realistic will not have a fairy tale ending - though I did keep hoping for one. And I suppose that's where the title comes in. Life is "a fine balance" of hope and despair. In 1970s India, if Mistry's portrayal is at all accurate, this is all too true.
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LibraryThing member JanetteImrie
I adore this book. It is the most beautifully written tragedy I have come across. I couldn't put it down and was so sorry when it was over. This book deserves to be on the list of books that everyone should reads at least once. I can't recommend it enough.
LibraryThing member starbox
Four very different characters come together in a small flat in 1970s India- a time of massive corruption, thuggery and evil under Indira Gandhi. This is a tale of the (changing) balance between them, but also, another kind: "there is always hope- hope enough to balance our despair. Or we would be
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lost." (But IS there hope??)
First there's widowed Dina Shroff; struggling to keep her independence from a controlling brother. Then student Maneck, son of an old schoolfriend, now coming to lodge with her, after a traumatic time living in a hostel.
And lastly two impoverished tailors, coming to work for her as she tries to start a sewing business; uncle and nephew, once Untouchables, they too have a story to tell...and aspirations.
This is a truly shocking expose of an era I knew nothing about. Bribery, gangs, beggars, slave labour...
The end is so UTTERLY beautiful, that you have to read the whole thing to get the full import of how Maneck's life works out. As perhaps the most sensitively drawn of the four characters, it totally tears the heart strings.
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LibraryThing member Tinwara
I always feel happy when I discover a gem such as this novel in the depths of my bookcase. It ia a beautifully written novel about India in the 1970's. I didn't know much about this period and was quite shocked to learn about the state of emergency Indira Ghandi declared and the political violence
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that ensued. Through the eyes of 4 main characters we get an idea of what this was like.

At the same time it is a horrible book, as things end so bad for all of them. I guess that is what happens in reality, but still, I loved the characters and I wished so badly for things were going to end well for them. The ending made me feel really sad. Still, a very good book.
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LibraryThing member SteveLindahl
A Fine Balance tells the story of India in 1975, during the state of emergency, when the opponents of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who is never mentioned by name) are jailed and Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, spearheads a forced sterilization campaign in an attempt to deal with overpopulation.

The
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story looks at cultural sexism, religious prejudice, the caste system, and police corruption from the perspective of the poor and lower middle class. It touches on the lives of some wealthier individuals, but only briefly, looking primarily at their opinions of the poor.

The publisher's description states that the novel has “a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens.” Like Dickens, Rohinton Mistry focuses on the underprivileged and like Dickens, his style includes numerous minor characters who keep reappearing throughout his story and plot twists that depend on coincidence.

The title comes from a character referred to as “the proofreader.” He states, “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” The scales seem to weigh heavier on the latter of those two choices, but the book is well worth reading. The ending is particularly engrossing. I couldn't put it down.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
Extremely well written but relentless in the depressing and horrifying incidents that the main characters experience. I have heard Mistry compared to Dickens but it was missing the comic relief that Dickens usually includes & I for one would have appreciated it.

Pages

624

ISBN

0375414819 / 9780375414817
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