Girl Power: Mistry's Female Characters

Jennifer Takhar []

Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

This essay has been translated by the author from the original French.

From the very outset of A Fine Balance the author makes a note of Dina Dalal's (née Shroff) "fragile independence" (16). She is the novel's heroine. She lives alone since the untimely death of her husband Rustom and makes her living by sewing garments. Her moneymaking ventures also include the letting of a room in her apartment, the money earned enables her to foot her many bills. Dina possesses a sharp, shrewd kind of intelligence. She is, as Mistry himself puts it, "a smart little girl (who) knows how to get what she wants... " (16). Her brother Nusswan contrasts hugely with her, he has no ambitions of his own nor does he have Dina's adaptability : "the son was not made of the same solid stuff...(he) wouldn't amount to much" (16).

Dina's mother, Mrs.Shroff, who is from a different generation does not match up in terms of perseverance and strength to her daughter. She does not have the kind of mindset that resists life's unexpected tragedies. The mother's mental health visibly disintegrates after the sudden death of her husband from a cobra bite he suffers during a round of vaccinations he was issuing.(17). Dina's aunt, "crazy Bapsy Aunty ",(51) follows in the steps of Mrs.Shroff, losing her reason after the loss of her spouse. For these women, being completely dependant on their husbands and never knowing liberty during marriage, the loss of their spouse is tantamount to the loss of a support necessary for living. Nonetheless Dina chooses to live after the death of Rustom. When Mr.Shroff dies the brother Nusswan looks after Dina as is the custom in Indian families. He, however mistreats her, prevents her from completing her schooling, beats her and forces her to clean the apartment where they live with Nusswan's wife. Again and again Dina demonstrates her strength faced with the male figures who litter her path with hardship. Moreover she has to take care of her mother, dress her, encourage her to eat because of course her mother sees no reason in living.

Dustoor Framji, the priest at the agyaari (Parsi fire temple) is one of the obstacles in Dina's life. He is comically called "Daab-Chaab"(26) in gujerati, 'press, pinch', to highlight his penchant in joyfully fondling the young girls who frequent the temple. Avoiding the Priest's wandering hands is far from being the only difficulty in Dina's life.

Sex Crimes...

Casting our minds back to the inversion of the Mahatma's theory concerning the relationships between men and women, Nusswan punishes Dina because she is rapidly becoming sexually attractive and he does this by violently pinching her nipples(24). What is interesting is how Nusswan treats Dina like one would a rakshasi (demoness). He threatens to cut off her tongue as well as her breasts when Dina teases him. She has noticed that Nusswaan desires her when he begins to observe her 'strangely' after her bath when she stands naked "he was eyeing her strangely, and she grew afraid"(24). This kind of attitude is parallel to the ideas read in the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, where demonesses undergo the same physical reproval. (During one episode Shurpanaka, the sister of the ten headed demon, Ravana, suffers a similar mutilation at Lakshmana's hand, Rama's trusty aide. She desires Rama, and wants to marry him, threatening even to kill Rama's wife Sita. Upon her uttering these words Lakshamana sets about cutting off her nose and ears : "Lakshmana promptly took his sword and he snipped off the tips of the nose and ears of Shurpanakha " (241-244). Parts of the body, and especially the face, are mutilated or excised. Here my inversion of the Gandhian vision shows Nusswan's ambiguous sexual relationship regarding his sister. When he tries to arrange her marriage, Nusswann chooses men, his friends in fact, who resemble him. This again reinforces our 'Gandhian inversion' where we clearly see that only clones of Nusswan appear 'suitable' for marriage with Dina : "(Nusswan) started inviting eligible bachelors to their home...and they reminded her (Dina) of Nusswan in all they said and did. "(28).

Dina proves to be extremely independent-minded and smart: she educates herself in Bombay's public libraries and selects her own husband, who dies in a road accident after three years of wedded bliss with Dina.

Dina manages to go on living or rather surviving without having to depend on her brother's reluctant charity. Each day is a permanent struggle against Daab-Chaab's lusty fingers, her despotic brother and against the ghost of Rustom which haunts her. We must not forget the additional necessity of Dina having to make enough money to keep a roof over her head.

Postcolonial Web India OV Canada Rohinton Mistry