Expanding the Boundaries of Literature

Rohinton Mistry’s novel

The role of an individual in shaping the history of a nation has always been a subject of debate. National history is often regarded as ‘the truth’ about the important events and lives of public figures in the country. These representations of facts, which are recorded by historiographers, claim an objective tone. But where does the individual, who is a social product, figure in this historical record? Does the writing of an ordinary person about his society, life and experiences have a bearing on the national history? Individual writing and institutional histories do have a point of intersection. Each individual perception becomes important as this point of view will alter the outlook to what happened in the past.

Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is also one such individual perception of the Emergency imposed in India in 1975. The novel revises institutional history which has, for a long time, neglected the lives of the common people. Diasporic writers, like Mistry, often face the criticism of not being aware of several socio-political, economical and religious intricacies of the country they write about. But Mistry, in his ‘A Fine Balance’, successfully overcomes this hurdle and achieves a ‘fine balance’ between national history and the society in which individuals live.


The novel pitches four characters at its centre – Dina Dalal,  Maneck Kohlah, Ishvar Darji and Omprakash Darji. The characters live in their own world of despair and necessity brings them all under one roof. Initially, the four people are ‘unwilling co-inhabitants’ of a crammed apartment in crowded Bombay. Dina, a widow, wants to live independent of her dominating brother. Maneck, a student, takes lodging with Dina. Ishvar and Omprakash, victims of racial discrimination, join the household as employees of the small-scale tailoring business which she toils to run for her living. Despite the barriers created by their social, economic and religious status, a bond develops among them. They realize that they are not alone but do have other shoulders to rest their burdens upon. But their dream of ‘a one happy family’ is shattered with the declaration of Emergency. On a trip to their hometown, the tailors are forced to undergo vasectomy. The upper caste enemies of Ishvar and Omprakash enlist their names for a mass vasectomy programme. Ishvar is infected by the un-sterilized instruments used in vasectomy and this leads to the amputation of his legs. Unable to continue their profession as tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash are reduced to beggars. Maneck leaves the country to take up a job and returns after a few years to witness the fate of his friends. Dina, who has now turned half-blind, lives with her not-so-caring brother. Maneck, unable to bear the reality of destiny, commits suicide. This novel is a reflection of many such tragedies that have happened but gone unvoiced in the pages of history. Rohinton Mistry’s novel focuses on the point of intersection of the two lines –  public history and private history. Artistic expressions of any historic period represent the silences of the marginalized. A Fine Balance, too, describes what might have happened to unknown citizens in the nooks and corners of the country in 1975. It is a novel which brilliantly makes its readers realize that the boundaries of literature expand tremendously when Art tries to accommodate what Historiography has missed.


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