At 748 pages, Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry’s
long-awaited new novel, A Fine Balance,
is one of the biggest books of the season – literally.
“It was going to be a short novel,” says Mistry whose
1991 novel Such a Long Journey established
him as one of the fastest-rising stars on the national and international
The book won the Governor General’s Award and the W. H. Smith/Books
in Canada First Novel Prize, as well as the Commonwealth Writers
It was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, putting Mistry
in the rarefied company of fellow Canadian Booker nominees Margaret
Atwood, Robertson Davies and Mordecai Richler. The only Canadian
to win the Booker was Michael Ondaatje, for The English Patient
Like Such a Long Journey, A
Fine Balance is set in Bombay, Mistry’s home for the
first 25 years of his life. The action takes place during the 1975-77
state of emergency declared by then-prime minister Indira Gandhi.
The story follows the life of Dina Dalal, an independent-minded
widow who opens an illegal home-sewing business rather than becoming
dependent on her wealthy brother.
The nature of the work demands that she hire Ishvar and Omprakash,
two tailors from the countryside. She also takes on a lodger, Maneck,
a student and the son of a former classmate. When the emergency
state makes it dangerous for Ishvar and Omprakash to continue living
in the shanties and the streets, all four end up sharing Dina’s
“The book was going to focus on the flat and the four characters
in it during that time, nothing before or after,” Mistry said
during a recent stop to read in Edmonton this past week.
“As I was writing about them, I knew their stories and I
felt I had to tell them.”
While the emergency measure affect Dina and Maneck indirectly,
Ishvar and his nephew Om see the effects firsthand.
Misty said incidents like the pro-Gandhi rally to which the homeless
are bused to the forced sterilization camps, are based on actual
events from that time.
“I left Bombay in 1975, just after the emergency was declared,
but that was a coincidence. I was going to emigrate anyway,”
said Mistry. “I always kept reading about India, and all those
episodes collected in my head.”
Mistry said he began to think of weaving those episodes into a
novel after he finished Journey. “That
first novel was set in 1971, during the independence war between
India and Pakistan. I decided the next interesting phase was 1975-77.”
In detailing the life stories of each of the main characters, as
well as some key supporting characters, A Fine
Balance seems to lead to the philosophical conclusion that
complete freedom is impossible to attain.
“I have no fixed philosophical notion, but it seems to appear
that way. All freedoms are circumscribed in some way,” Mistry
said. “There’s a given situation and within the four
walls of that situation, [the characters] are free to act in a number
of given ways. They can’t act outside those four walls, so
there is no such thing as total freedom.”
Mistry’s main interest and his main strength as a writer
lie in characterization.
“I think all good writing can come if there is something
interesting to me on a human level.”
& Stewart Ltd.