This month Savita Kalhan shares A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry


I was born in a little village in Punjab, India, and came to live in the UK when I was very young. My parents were very strict and traditional. They believed that educating their children was of paramount importance – it was the key to success and to overcoming prejudice. My mother never had the chance to go to school when she was growing up and was illiterate, and the difficulties she encountered because of this highlighted the power of education for her. For both my parents, education was synonymous with books and reading.


We couldn’t afford to buy books, so we were taken to the library every week, where I ended up reading all the books in the children’s library! I climbed the Magic Faraway Tree, I wore Ballet Shoes. I adventured with Anne of Green Gables, and with Laura Ingalls Wilder on the prairies. The Children of Green Knowe were my friends. I devoured fairy tales, myths and legends, which led me to the door at the back of the wardrobe into Narnia and then I was battling dragons by Bilbo’s side. I lived inside the covers of The Lord of the Rings.


Later, in my teenage years, my heart led me to Flambards, and then to Thomas Hardy, and then further afield to foreign literature, to Madame Bovary and to many other places. Basically, I lived my childhood, my teenage and young adult years through books – they were my escape and my haven.


In all those years of reading I had not encountered anyone like me in books, nor come across a children’s book written by a British Asian woman, so I did not think that I could ever be a writer. A librarian or a bookshop owner yes, but never a writer. I knew I would always remain a voracious reader.


It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I met the book that was ultimately to change how I wrote, and what I wrote. The book was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Mistry was an Indian émigré to Canada and only started writing stories when he was in his thirties. He has since been twice short-listed for the Booker Prize.


A Fine Balance is a portrayal of life in Bombay in India during the 1970s, told through the eyes of four characters: a Parsi woman, Dina, two tailors, and a student from the north of India, four disparate people whose lives, outlooks, preconceptions and prejudices are fundamentally changed over a period of time after their first meeting. Tragedy exists at the heart of each of their stories, it permeates each page, yet the resilience of their spirit sits right beside it, tempering it. 'You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair' – and quite simply, that is exactly what Rohinton Mistry does.


His work speaks to me as an Indian, but it is universal in scope and in its depiction of humanity. He is, above all, a writer who plunges you, heart and mind, deep into his stories, where you remain submerged until the final page. Only then do you resurface, gasping for air.


I wrote a six book fantasy epic while I was living in Jeddah for several years teaching English. My fantasy was epic in scope, peppered with a vast array of characters, the storyline at once tragic and dramatic. Fantasy epics were my first love, but it was after reading A Fine Balance that I realised what a true epic meant and how it affected the reader. Reading it was like a master class in writing the best fiction.


And it led me into a dramatic change in the focus of my writing. I turned to gritty, edgy, hard-hitting themes – they were present to an extent in my fantasy writing, but not in a realistic and contemporary way. I wrote The Long Weekend, essentially a thriller about two boys abducted after school by a paedophile. It was written for kids aged 12+, so I had to be careful in terms of the language I used, the descriptions, and the story line. It could not be graphic or insensitive. The two boys in the book are English – I had still rarely seen any Asian characters in children’s books.


My next book was The Girl in the Broken Mirror, and it was in this book that I wrote my first British Asian main character, Jay. She is the girl in the broken mirror. The book is about her journey after a rape that leads her to see no future for herself. It also explores culture-clash, and patriarchy. It is harrowing and hard-hitting, but it is tempered with hope. In A Fine Balance, hope sometimes seems lost, but I could not write a book for children that does not contain the possibility of hope.


That Asian Kid explores another hard-hitting theme – racism. The main character is Jeevan, a fifteen year old British Asian boy, who faces a moral dilemma. Morality and behaving in a way that does not hurt other people is at the core of A Fine Balance, as it tells of a time in India when the inherent inequalities of the caste system, extreme poverty, high level corruption, life during the turmoil of Indira Gandhi's Emergency, the sterilization programme, and city ‘Beautification’ policies damaged so many lives.


My story is about a schoolboy trying to do the right thing when a teacher in a position of authority is abusing their power. Jeevan ends up with a recording of this teacher with his favourite teacher in the woods in flagrante. Should he upload the video to the internet, or not?


I’m not sure I will ever be able to write a work of fiction that in any way approaches the beauty and epic sweep of A Fine Balance, but it has inspired me to challenge myself, to see how important themes can be approached when writing for teenagers. And it has inspired me to be a better writer.


'... his sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without drawing attention to the stitches'


– this is a line spoken by one of Mistry's characters, and perhaps best describes the mastery and craft of Rohinton Mistry himself. In A Fine Balance he has created a complex and tightly-woven tapestry of humanity at its best and at its worst. It is a literary masterpiece and I highly recommend it.


Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. Now living in North London, she spends her time writing, playing tennis, and growing veg and super-hot chillies on her allotment. She also runs a teen reading group at her local library in Finchley. Her books That Asian Kid and The Girl in the Broken Mirror have both been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted and won regional book awards. The Long Weekend new edition will be published in spring 2022. 
Follow Savita on Twitter @savitakalhan
Savita’s website:


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