The present action in A Fine Balance is set during the emergency declared by Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in 1975. The events of this period are horrendous, but the back stories of the four main characters and the epilogue set eight years later reveal that life has been cruel to Indian peoples of limited financial means no matter the year.
As the book opens, tailors Ishvar and his nephew Om meet college student Maneck on the train. All three are traveling to the apartment of a widow named Dina, who is planning to rent a room to Maneck and employ the tailors to fill orders for a ready-to-wear business. Dina's husband was killed in a bicycle accident on their third anniversary and, ever since, she has been trying to maintain her independence from her brother's household. Ishvar and Om lost their entire families to violence in their village following a caste-related voting dispute and are looking for work in the city, hoping to make enough money to allow Om to marry on their return to the village. Maneck, whose mother knew Dina in college but married a shopkeeper from a mountain town, has been miserable at his student hostel, losing his one friend to involvement in student unrest. These events have brought the four of them to the point where they need one another.
Dina, who grew up in a wealthy family but chose to marry a working-class man, is at first disdainful of the tailors, who are from a much lower caste, but Maneck becomes friendly with them against her wishes. He learns of the complex web of relationships they have among others of Bombay's poor--people who live in the shack community where they find a home, beggars, waiters at coffee shops. As Om and Ishvar suffer a series of misfortunes brought about by government action, Dina finds herself opening her heart to them. By the end of a year together, the four are essentially a family, living, working, cooking, and eating together. Then Om and Ishvar return to their village to find a wife for Om, and Maneck finishes his one-year courses and returns to his mountain town. Suffice it to say, none of the four have a happy ending.
A Fine Balance, while written in a rather straightforward or objective tone that does not make the reader gasp with its beauty, is both engrossing and educative. And sad, so very sad. The conditions under which, according to Mistry, the poor lived in the mid to late 20th century are nearly incomprehensible--and I am embarrassed to say I am not knowledgable enough to say for sure what conditions they face today (though I suspect they continue to be terribly challenging). My shortcomings notwithstanding, I would recommend A Fine Balance.
Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.
But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated - not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.