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“A Fine Balance” (1996) by Rohan Mistry

I felt physically shaken, as though someone has punched me in the guts when I read the last few pages of this truly amazing novel set in India, mainly around The Emergency of the ‘Seventies, but with the backstory commencing around the Independence era of the late ‘Forties.


Another fine mess left by us Brits, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and continues to poison communities right across the Sub Continent. Was there anything positive for the subjects of the British Empire? One grain of goodness in a beach of exploitation and corrosive violence? I doubt it.


What I liked most about this book, in direct contrast to the lamentable Kite Runner, was that although the whole story takes place to the backdrop of huge political issues, the writer just tells the story and lets the reader make their own mind up. No polemics. Just description of the methods that Congress and Indihra Gandhi imposed on India in an attempt to restore some kind of order. The methods were crude and often resulted in situations not too far removed from Nazi Germany but Mistry, without condoning or condemning lets you reflect of the motives of those in power both at the top and those “following orders”.


We follow the stories of four main characters, a widow from a Middle Class background who has fallen on hard times, the son of friend whom she lets a room too, and finally a pair of tailors from the un touchable caste whom she starts out by employing to make clothes for a wholesaler.


All four have a rich tale to tell, and I was especially taken with the tailors and their families struggle to eke out an existence in rural India with all the weight of the caste system bearing down on them.


The characters are thrown together by chance, by necessity borne of political upheaval and the way Mistry weaves their stories together is a work of genius proving that common existential issues can bind even the most disparate of people. You care for each of them and they, and the situation gets right under your skin meaning that you can’t wait to steal another hour with them when you can.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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