In the mid-70s, India went through quite a bit of turmoil. The Prime Minister declared a state of emergency and there was a government sterilization program convincing, or at times forcing, citizens to stop having children by surgical means. Poverty was rampant and despair more common than happiness. A Fine Balance focuses on the lives of a student, a widow, and two tailors. The reader learns about their backgrounds, which are plagued with grief, and how they came to meet each other.
Dina is the widower, having lost her husband of three years to a hit and run accident. She is inherited his flat and the landlord wants to try to kick her out to rent it at a higher rate. She used to sew but as she's grown older her eyes have gotten worse so she wants to hire two tailors. At the same time, she takes a border in her flat. Income from these two sources should mean she doesn't have to ask her brother for money but at the same time the landlord can use both of those to try and get her kicked out. The border is the son of a grade school friend named Maneck. He grew up in the mountains and wanted to take over his dad's general store business but his parents decided it was more important for Maneck to get an education in the big city. While on the train to Dina's flat, he meets the two tailors Ishvar and Om. The tailors are uncle and nephew, coming from a small town where they both apprenticed in a tailor shop. Despite losing most of his family to a massacre, Ishvar has a fairly good attitude about life while Om does not. The two start to sew for Dina in her flat and Om wants to cut out the middleman.
This has to be one of the most depressing books I've ever read. Without giving too much away, there is just too much pain and misery for the characters and all of India. There's supposed to be "a fine balance" between happiness and misery but I felt like this was false advertising for the book!
Despite this being such a depressing read it was still satisfying. Mistry is a master at writing characters you can connect with, despite their foibles. You care for them, you want them to pull through and be happy.
I think this book would have been better off without the Epilogue. There were too many coincidences to make it believable and it got way too depressing.
First Line: "The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed."