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rohinton mistry:
a fine balance


For The Edmonton Sun
29 October 1995

Rohinton Mistry
A Fine Balance

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 scene.

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 Prize.

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 in 1992.

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 flat.

“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.”

External Link:
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.



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