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Shadow of Life
May 16, 2007 02:09 AM 4960 Views
(Updated May 16, 2007 04:46 AM)



Ever since I got into reading books, I had vowed not to read a social fiction based in India, especially penned by an NRI.  Alas, like many other determinations, this one was also broken when a dear friend of mine ‘highly recommended’ this book. I have such a blind faith in some people in this world that I picked it up without giving a second thought. Well am I complaining? Not really. A Fine Balance is set in 1970s India when State of Emergency was declared by the then Prime Minister.

It is a story of Dina Dalal, a widow living in a big City, trying to make two ends meet.  She is expert at tailoring; however, now she is getting old and her eyes do not support her. Landlord’s threats continue for want of rent and now she is out there looking for tailors to help her.

It is a story of Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash, who have come to the City from their ancestral village after their family being decimated by upper caste landowners.  They are tailors by profession and looking for some work in the City so that they can accumulate money and go back to the village and live happily ever after.

It is a story of Maneck Kohlah, a young lad who has come to the City for advanced studies. He is tired of living in the hostel due to rampant campus politics and ragging. He is looking for a place to be a paying guest.

Four different individuals from different walks of life end up under one roof in Dina Dalal’s home. The book is about how their lives are intertwined by external and internal influences. They all have a common goal - to survive in this brutal world, where everyone and everything is corrupted. They struggle together. They face challenges together. They celebrate together. But will they succeed? You have to read the book to find out.Rohinton Mistry’s prose is amazing. The narrative is simple, lucid and thankfully devoid of any exigent jargon. To write a book that deals with every ill prevalent in Indian society and still manage to keep interest alive till the very end is by no means an easy task. Not once in the book do you find Mistry preachy. He simply weaves the different threads in such an easy fashion that you don’t even notice when you are consumed by the book.

After reading The Fountainhead, I had thought that there is not a single contemporary author who can match Ayn Rand’s meticulous character development. I am glad Mistry proved me wrong. The book starts with Dina Dalal’s story. Just notice how Mistry develops her character with help of her mother, brother and the housemaid. You start visualizing the character in front of you. You laugh and you cry with the characters because you feel like you live with them.

Mistry has spent first half of the book in developing 3 different stories I synopsized earlier. The other half of the book deals with their living together and how they help each other cope with external and internal tribulations and their struggle for survival.

There is every possibility that you would want to put the book down while reading miserable situation that Dina Dalal, Ishwar and Omprakash face in their individual lives. However, you must patiently continue reading. Mistry gradually takes you all the way up on the Mount Everest when all of them are living fairly happily together and they seem to be succeeding in their struggle. The ride to the top is bumpy, yet engrossing. But the worst part is (spoilers ahead) when the story takes a free fall from Mount Everest. And by free fall, I mean literally nosedive.

The climax of the book left me with many questions. The book is known more for its dark and depressing ending. You will ask yourself – why something horrible like this should happen to such nice individuals! Why did their lives have to take a negative turn when everything seemed to be going right! In fact, the clincher is lack of recognition – out of embarrassment – by Maneck and Omprakash when they bump into each other after years of separation.

The book had such an impact on me that I could not get it out of my head for at least a week. I couldn’t sleep for 2 days. And right now, thinking of that climax gives me a lump in my throat and fills my mind with agony and sadness. But that is what is great about this book. It has an everlasting impact on you.


The book though did raise some questions again for me.  Is it true that in India, hardworking and honest individuals never succeed!?  Or the problem is with authors like Mistry who cannot come out of their narrow chauvinist views of India and that they tend to focus on failures rather than successes because as they say that those who depict dark side of Indian society are appreciated more by the rich West! I have every reason to find merit in the argument that authors like Mistry crave for a pat in the back by the West and that leads them to write only about dark side of Indian society. Arundhati Roy is another such example.

Anyway, if you leave any such prejudice away while reading the book, I am sure you will find it one of the best books you have ever read.

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Fine Balance, A - Rohinton Mistry