Rohinton Mistry's a Fine Balance: an Analysis

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All great fiction transform our understanding of life, our perception of the universe, of the incomprehensible patterns that our lives makes and those that we regard as meaningless. As Wendy Wasserstein puts it, “The trick. . .is to find the balance between the bright colors of humor and the serious issues of identity, self-loathing, and the possibility for intimacy and love when it seems no longer possible or, sadder yet, no longer necessary.” In A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry attempts to portray life that slips off between the cup and lip, leaving vague patterns behind, very often bringing down every attempt at maintaining that balance in life where the worthy struggles and wages a worm’s battle with the merciless bird of fate for survival while the unworthy flourishes. As one go through the work, which is a real blend of history, imagination, reality and a multitude of human emotions and conditions, we desperately hope for a poetic justice as the characters sink from what seemed to be a fine balance to a struggle for survival. A Fine Balance is the story of four different people, Dina Dalal, a Parsi widow; Maneck Kohlah- a student from the hillside, Ishwar – a tailor turned chamar and Omprakash, his nephew. The foursome comes together at the doorstep of a tiny flat in Bombay. While Ishwar and Omprakash come to the city to escape the cruelty of the caste system in their village and earn a living since what they had had been destroyed by industrialization, Maneck’s intention is to increase his career prospects by earning a degree in Air Conditioning. Dina lives a secluded life ,which is hard enough for a lively, vibrant and beautiful lady like herself, but is essential to preserve her independence. However, the lives of the uncle and the nephew are most pitiable of the foursome bound by their economic conditions, social standards and the worst of all, their caste.

In a fine balance, Mistry steps out of the Parsi life into the larger social reality. Caste discrimination is one of the major issues Mistry deals with in the work. Untouchability, even after years of its prohibition was rampant in the 1970s, especially in the villages. Among the four protagonists of the novel, Ishwar and his nephew Omprakash belong to the chamar caste. Which fall among the many untouchable castes. Chamars were cobblers according to the traditional line of jobs, who made sandals, whips, harness and water skins out of the dead animals. We see that ‘like the filth of the dead animals which covered him and was smeared everywhere.’ (AFB- 96). This consciousness of the invisible boundaries of caste system ever increased as Dukhi grew up. In ‘the village by the river’, the village settlement are described in detail. The chamars lived in a section ‘downstream’ from where the Brahmins and landlords lived, the river ever carrying upper caste wastes down to those settlements. Dukhis father would repeat the stories to his wife as he ate, the stories which remained the same always, with only the names the time he entered his teens, he had the full mastery of the list of real and imaginary crimes an untouchable could commit and the corresponding punishment for those. The crimes stretched so far as to refusing sexual pleasure for upper caste men who treated the ‘untouchable’ women as slaves and mere objects for sexual gratification. For instance, Buddhu’s wife had been shaved off her head and paraded naked for refusing the zamindar’s son. The reason for the tortures were trifles like upper caste envy over Dukhi’s fathering two sons while the Brahmin wombs remained sterile or had no male fruit. The uppers blamed it on Kaliyug and insisted on practicing the dharmic order more arduously, to which many untouchables including Dukhi contributed some of their skin and a few, their lives. “… the crimes were varied and imaginative: a bhungi had dared to let his unclean eyes meet Brahmin eyes; a chamar had walked on the wrong side of the temple road...
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