A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: The horrors of caste system

In Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”, Indira Gandhi’s emergency era is the backdrop of tragic events befalling the four protagonists, who, despite the utter hopelessness and anxiety surrounding them, find comfort in each others’ company. The story starts in the same year the emergency was declared, 1975. Indira Gandhi was found guilty of cheating in the elections. But instead of resigning Prime Ministership, she twisted the law in her favour, turning against her opposition in a despotic effort to keep her throne. Tyranny became regular fare. Public meetings and processions banned, opponents and presumed opponents thrown in jail without trial, destitute street dwellers forced out of the city ruthlessly in the name of civic beautification and garabi hatao, forced vasectomies and tubectomies in the name of birth control terrorizing the helpless poor – events with grave consequences were driven to insignificance by their frequency. In these troubled times, two low caste chamaars (leather workers) turned darzis (tailors), fleeing the oppression of their native village, go to the “city” for their share of fortunes, or misfortunes as they discover what fate has in store.


The city by the sea, although never referred to by name, is inevitably Bombay. The tailors did not choose to abandon their village of their own free will. They were victims of the caste system, by which upper castes have driven the lives of the so called inferior castes to horrible ignominy. Mistry brings out, with devastating effect, the unbelievable levels of cruelty humans can impart upon their fellow. Hands chopped off, molten lead poured into ears, murder at the drop of a hat – are all commonplace, the mere hint of a diversion from meaningless customs bearing extremely violent consequences for the mute, conforming lower caste communities, in the hands of the goondas bred by upper castes. The problem exists to this day and will continue to plague India unless dealt with very strictly, like racism was dealt with in the United States. But before that, India, like the United States or any other developed country of the free world, needs literacy. Only the light of knowledge will dispel the hideous shadow of the caste system tormenting the nation for centuries. Only through complete literacy will the citizens be able to choose forthright leaders, drive out spineless bastards raping the country for power, playing one against another in their shameless show of selfishness. No more caste system in India, that evil which makes many of its teeming millions stoop below animals. No more divisions on religions. No more shackles on the masses. Unite, not divide. It’s hard to believe, but true, that in the India of the twenty first century, with smart engineers and scientists sending rockets to space, there are still in the deeper pockets of its colourful garment, people who undergo such discrimination every day, and people who can can commit such brazen crimes without fear of justice. And why just in the hell holes of deep rural India? I’m sure there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing roaming the urban jungles with as much vindication in their hearts and minds. How can we call ourselves civilized knowing such barbaric prejudices in the hearts of so many of our people?

But I digress. My intent was merely to talk about the fate befalling Ishvar and Omprakash(Om) — the two tailors. But can one conscientious human possibly talk about them without first venting oneself against the system – the very real system which is no fiction for countless unfortunate souls even today? A system that can only be eradicated with more and more people like Dina and Maneck, who befriend Ishvar and Om in Bombay. Disparate backgrounds notwithstanding, the four cement a bond. Driven by circumstances, they even share a common roof, connect with each other by kindness and love – that which make us human.

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18 thoughts on “A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: The horrors of caste system

  1. After reading Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” I have been buying these books by the dozen and handing them out as gifts to all my friends and colleagues of music and art.

    It would be my honour to meet Mistry, who so boldly exposed the Emergency and the atrocious and henous crimes done by the government at that time with such prowess.

    I must admit, I read the book almost everyday, and it still brings tears to my eyes.

    All my friends (I have bought over 60 of them) have commented to me that it has changed their lives forever. I have mentioned his literary works in all of my concerts.

    If anyone has his contact info, I would be much obliged.


  2. I am glad you covered this topic in A Fine Balance, I am a grade 12 student, and my school, for eng, is using this novel instead of the usual boring novels we used to discuss. Though it isnt the typical book i would read, i believe everyone should read this book at least once to get a different perspecitve on the world 🙂 It helps


    1. Hey Sarah R I noticed you read the book and Im also adding the book for English I and I was wondering if you can clear some things up for me.


  3. I am currently reading A Fine Balance, (I am on page 527 of the Oprah’s Book Club edition) and I cannot imagine another piece of literature making such an impact on me. I am an avid reader, and I put off reading this book. Not because I was told it wasn’t worth reading, quite the opposite. I put it off because I heard my father saying when I was young that this book is the reason he will never visit India, the images of the story weighing too heavily on him.
    I have followed the characters through some of the most horrific events anyone could ever imagine and have grown to care about them like they were my own creation. Sometimes, living in a safe home in America, it is easy to forget that what these characters are going through is real. But, even though the people are fictional, the stories ARE real, and horrifying, and amazing, and full of human emotion and truth and power.

    I stopped reading this evening at a part of the book that…well…really couldn’t get much more ugly. The unfairness makes me grit my teeth. I think that this book should be read in every highschool, distributed freely to ANYONE who can read. I haven’t even finished it and I already know that this is probably the single most effecting literature I will ever read. Hats off to Mr. Mistry for showing a side of the world that many would never be able to see, and the triumphs and joys that can come, even in the most desperate of times. Truly a lesson to all humans, wherever in the world they may live.


  4. Thanks Kat for expressing your views. It is to Mistry’s credit that he succeeds in painting such a foreboding picture. But it would be unfair to base one’s idea of India solely on the basis of this book.


  5. I read this book several years ago on Oprahs’ recommendation. I have never before or since read anything quite like it. One moment you are filled with hope for the characters, the next moment with sadness and hopelessness…like an emotional roller coaster ride. I read alot, but this outstanding book definitely left a lasting impression. I plan to recommend it to my book club and recommend it highly to anyone interested in other cultures.


  6. Indira Gandhi no doubt possessed great charecter but unfortunately she was not mentally stable and the calling of emergency in 1975 is one of th e’Black Day’ in World’s largest democracy .The Mistry depicts the stories of castism and exploitation of the have nots is praiseworthy.


  7. HI !!! I am trying to get in touch with Mr Rohinton Mistry … would be obliged if any one can help me out with his email address …. take care …


  8. hi I’m Nova Ann Jacob. I’m studying Engineering in Tamil Nadu. I’m working for a part time internship for a website INDshare.com which gives inspiration to the new generation to follow their passions. Can i get your interview? Can i get a mail id where i can contact you personally? I can send in the questionnaire as soon as you reply. thank you for your valuable time.


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