A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance is the second novel by Rohinton Mistry. First published by McClelland & Stewart in 1995, it won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996. The setting is India in 1975–76, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, defying a court order calling for her resignation, declares a state of emergency and imprisons the parliamentary opposition as well as thousands of students, teachers, trade unionists and journalists. These events, along with the government’s forced sterilization campaign, serve as backdrop for an intricate tale of four ordinary people struggling to survive. Naive college student Maneck, whose parents’ general store is failing, rents a room in the house of Dina Dalal, a 40-ish widowed seamstress. Dina acquires two additional boarders: hapless but enterprising itinerant tailor Ishvar and his nephew, Omprakash, whose father, a village untouchable, was murdered as punishment for crossing caste boundaries. With great empathy and wit, Mistry evokes the daily heroism of India’s working poor, who must cope with corruption, social anarchy and bureaucratic absurdities. Mistry combines an openness to India’s infinite sensory detail with a Dickensian rendering of the effects of poverty, caste, envy, superstition, corruption and bigotry. His vast, wonderfully precise canvas poses the riddle of how to transform a corrupt, ailing society into a healthy one.

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