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Narratives of hospitalities and hostilities
Of guests and parasites

Hosting and Homemaking in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995)

Accueillir et construire un chez-soi dans A Fine Balance de Rohinton Mistry (1995)
Natacha Lasorak


Les parcours des personnages dans A Fine Balance (1995) soulignent la difficulté de se faire accepter chez quelqu’un d’autre, que ce soit une ville, une famille ou un simple auvent. Le deuxième roman de Rohinton Mistry suit l’évolution de quatre personnages qui luttent pour l’indépendance et la survie dans une ville sans nom au bord de la mer et ils se posent la question du rôle de l’hospitalité dans le processus qui conduit à se sentir chez-soi. On peine à trouver dans le roman ce que Jacques Derrida a appelé l’hospitalité inconditionnelle, l’accueil de l’autre sans condition de réciprocité et sans demander son nom, car l’hôte accueilli l’est avec contrepartie financière, que la participation soit matérielle ou symbolique. La porosité des frontières et les nombreux exemples de transgression des limites de religion, de caste ou de classe suggèrent que faire preuve d’hospitalité pourraient être une manière de construire un chez-soi. Cette interprétation crée un parallèle avec une lecture méta-textuelle : la galerie des personnages de Mistry nous invite également à considérer la capacité de ce roman à accueillir les histoires en son sein et à faire une place à chacun.

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Next time I go searching for accommodation, you should come with me, see how families live. Eight, nine, or ten people in a small room. Sleeping one over the other on big shelves, from floor to ceiling, like third-class railway berths. Or in cupboards, or in the bathroom. Surviving like goods in a warehouse. (Mistry, 1995: 472)

  • 1 According to Peter Morey, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked the President of India to declare the (...)

1The exceptional crisis in the housing market in an unnamed city identifiable as Bombay, combined with the historical context of the State of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi between June 1975 and March 19771, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for some of the main protagonists of A Fine Balance to find a suitable independent accommodation. In the quotation above, Ishvar describes people who live crammed in small spaces to the point that they are dehumanised: not only are they compared to “goods”, they have also disappeared from the sentences as subjects. As another character regretfully remarks, “it’s almost impossible in this city to find a house” (Mistry, 1995: 161), which is all the more true of characters who have limited financial means and influence. Each of the four main characters of Mistry’s novel—an unpaid student, two tailors struggling to make ends meet and a jobless widow—becomes, at one stage or another, reliant on someone else’s hospitality, which can be broadly defined as “the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, with liberality and goodwill” (Oxford English Dictionary, online).

2A Fine Balance is Rohinton Mistry’s second novel. Published in 1995, it follows the journeys of four characters whose paths meet in a city by the sea, in the middle of the 1970s. Dina is a Parsi widow whose financial difficulties prompt her to welcome a young Parsi student, Maneck, as a paying guest into her flat. Her home is further transformed into a small-sized illegal factory after she asks two Hindu cobblers-turned-tailors from a village, Ishvar and Om, to work for her in her living room. Dina’s little flat, at first a guarded place and a haven of sorts, progressively allows Maneck, and later on Om and Ishvar, as inhabitants within its walls, until Dina herself is thrown out of it by her landlord at the end of the novel and has to return to her brother’s place.

3Homes are unstable to say the least in A Fine Balance; like the precariously balanced character on the cover picture of the Faber and Faber 1997 edition, they constantly threaten to collapse and fall. They are often destabilised by the arrival of new inhabitants, who require that the rules of living under the same roof be redefined. Yet the relationships which are created in this way suggest that the opening of doors is essential to the making of a home; for instance, Jacques Derrida insists that hospitality is one of its characteristics: “in order to constitute the space of a habitable house and a home, you have to give up a passage to the outside world [l’étranger]. There is no house or interior without a door or windows.” (Derrida & Dufourmantelle, 2000: 61) Derrida’s reflection invites us to question the potential simultaneity and dependence of the two notions of hosting and homemaking. We rely on a broad definition of home, such as is provided by Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling (2006: 2) in their introduction to Home:

Home […] is a place, a site in which we live. But, more than this, home is also an idea and an imaginary that is imbued with feelings. These may be feelings of belonging, desire and intimacy (as, for instance, in the phrase “feeling at home”), but can also be feelings of fear, violence and alienation […].

4Homemaking is to be understood as the process by which a place becomes a home, linked therefore with feelings and not only to a specific location. Such a place may designate a house but it can also refer, on another scale, to a city or a country. In the characters’ numerous attempts to share a common place to dwell, Mistry’s novel seems to suggest that hosting guests is a necessary condition to establishing a home. The presence of Parsi characters complicates further the notion of home and hospitality as India has retained its status as a host country to the Parsi diaspora. As John R. Hinnells and Alan Williams hint, “though they have been in India for over 1,200 years Parsi Zoroastrians still regard themselves as long-term émigrés from Iran, which remains their spiritual home” (2008: 2). Mistry himself, as a Parsi writer who emigrated to Canada when he was twenty-three, should be read in this light, as Nilufer E. Bharucha points out: “As an Indian who now lives in and writes from Canada, Rohinton Mistry is a writer of the Indian Diaspora. However, Mistry is also a Parsi Zoroastrian and as a person whose ancestors were forced into exile by the Islamic conquest of Iran, he was in Diaspora even in India.” (1995: 57)

5Navigating between the works of Jacques Derrida, but also Fabienne Brugère, Guillaume Le Blanc and Siby George, this chapter will analyse the centrality of hospitality in the making of one’s home in A Fine Balance. Our analysis will question the extent to which hospitality is offered, as many experiences seem to fall into the category of “receiving guests” but hospitality remains measured, carefully offered and limited. We will first point out the selectivity of hospitality as it is depicted in the novel, which will lead us to question the potential threat on the home that welcoming guests might entail. However, the guests in Mistry’s novel do not destroy the homes in which they are welcome; on the contrary, the novel invites us to think about their responsibilities in taking part in the task of homemaking. Hospitality creates strong links between the characters and transforms the home they share. Adding to Brugère and Le Blanc’s notions of political and ethical hospitality, one is tempted to add a literary form of hospitality, which emerges when stories are shared in the space of the home.

Selective hospitalities

6In his study of hospitality in Indian culture, Siby George notices how “India is famously described as a land of legendary hospitality, bolstered by a cultural and religious spirit of tolerance” (2009: 30). He points out the importance of the Sanskrit phrase “atithidevō bhavah”, which would translate as “be one for whom the guest is god”, which appears in the Taittiriya Upanisad. The sentence is well-known and often quoted as a proverb in India, and implies a “strong hospitality ethos” (2009: 30), a virtue to be cultivated. As Saugata Bhaduri (Jeanniard du Dot & Mianowski, 2020) makes clear, the guest is literally “the one who comes unexpected”; s/he could be a complete stranger. However, George also underlines the importance of inequalities related to caste, class and gender, which render the laws of hospitality as they are presented in the Upanisads impracticable. The notion of hospitality is thus caught in a paradox: while a hospitable behaviour is deemed virtuous in theory, it is hindered by feelings of hostility in practice. Jacques Derrida (2000: 4) coins the term “hostipitality” to refer to the dual experience which stems from this paradox, the host oscillating between two types of behaviours: “the welcomed guest [hôte] is a stranger treated as a friend or ally, as opposed to the stranger treated as an enemy (friend/enemy, hospitality/hostility). The pair […] hospitality/hostility, is in place.” (1999b: 4)

  • 2 In his analysis of Zoroastrian beliefs, Robert C. Zaehner presents hospitality as one of the rules (...)

7The phrase “be one for whom the guest is god”, then, seems to refer to a ritual practice which defines the roles of host and guest, who are set in a relationship between giver and receiver. According to George, hospitality is to be understood here as a kind of gift: “The hospitable act is non-reciprocal in the sense that there is no expectation of a return from the receiver of hospitality. More than an open home, food is a symbol of hospitality. Hospitality is an act of giving” (2009: 31). In this description, the way hospitality is performed relies entirely on the host, who will provide food for his guest. This could be analysed as a first type of hospitality, which is the most traditional and easiest way in which hospitality is displayed in Mistry’s novel. Examples abound of characters offering food to others. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, after Dina’s wedding ceremony, her sister-in-law Ruby who is hosting the dinner party serves food to the guests: “She hovered around to play the host in the time-honoured fashion, repeating regretfully before each guest, ‘Please forgive us, we could manage nothing worthy of you.’” (Mistry, 1995: 38) The phrase “playing the host” suggests a roleplay to which Ruby submits, observing a tradition which is deeply embedded in Parsi culture (Zaehner, 1976: 111)2. The repetition of the formula undermines the sincerity of her words but also underlines the sense of duty which links the host to each of her guests. The dinner is limited in time and hospitality only extends until it is over. When the host asks the caterers to clean up, the last guests to leave the party “[get] the hint” (Mistry, 1995: 39); they understand to what extent hospitality is offered and when they are expected to leave. Hosting functions here as a social ritual among peers, and even then it briefly interrupts the smooth running of the house. Indeed, after the guests’ departure, “the rooms would have to be put back in order” (Mistry, 1995: 39), and the bride herself and her husband need to leave and go back to their apartment.

  • 3 The position of the widow or divorcée coming back to her family’s place is a trope in Indian litera (...)
  • 4 “Nous ne disons ‘faites comme chez vous, entrez’ que parce que nous savons fort bien que l’hôte ain (...)

8By the end of the novel, Dina’s position has dramatically changed. Her husband has died only three years after their wedding and for years, she struggles to keep the flat which was theirs, doing odd jobs and taking in a tenant. Yet the pressures increase until she has to give in and is evicted from her flat. With nowhere else to go, Dina returns to her brother Nusswan’s home and he welcomes her with these words: “For years and years I have prayed to God to bring you home. […] Just make yourself useful in the house—that’s all I ask.” (Mistry, 1995: 572) The usual “make yourself at home” is twisted into a more prosaic, almost greedy kind of welcome. Far from being disinterested, as the first part of the utterance could suggest, Nusswan expects a small profit from the presence of his sister; tellingly, he dismisses the maid soon after her arrival. Dina is thus allowed to enter her brother’s house and even inhabit her own bedroom, but her position in the story is once again modified: in the flat she inhabited after her husband’s death, she was a host and as such had welcomed Ishvar, Om and Maneck. Yet, being a tenant, her own position in the flat depended on the landlord’s goodwill and although Dina was somehow protected by the law, her eviction underlines the precarity of her claim over this space; moreover, being a Parsi, she remains a guest in the Indian hostland. Going to her brother’s place, she becomes a guest, having forgone her relative independence and depending on the goodwill of a brother she used to hate3. As Fabienne Brugère and Guillaume Le Blanc remark in their study La Fin de l’hospitalité (2018), we only say “Make yourself at home” (“Faites comme chez vous, entrez”) because we know that the guest who is welcome in this way will never feel completely at home, and will have to stay on the threshold although he/she can enter the house (Brugère & Le Blanc, 2018: 31)4. Here, hosting Dina is not a gratuitous act of kindness: rules have been set by the host and her new home is a place of work.

9Hence it seems that even among family members, hospitality cannot be absolute, and it does not guarantee that the guest will feel at home. If members of a same social or religious group owning a house can only host others under certain conditions, it seems improbable that the welcome could be extended to members of another social class or religion.

Hospitality: a threat to the home?

10When the arrival of an individual inside the home does not follow the traditional role-play between host and guest, welcoming the other is often perceived by characters as a threat to their own homes, be they their houses, their city or their country. When Dina announces to her Parsi friend that the former villagers Ishvar and Om are going to settle on her verandah with Om’s bride, she is appalled: “The whole jing-bang clan will end up on the verandah. Half their village. And you’ll never be able to get rid of them. The place will turn into a pigsty, with all their primitive unhygienic habits” (Mistry, 1995: 547). The hostility derives from clichés about lower-caste villagers, whose dirty habits and messiness are already implied in the expression “jing-bang clan”, which is mimetic of the noise they would supposedly make. Accusing the tailors of filthiness renders visible a caste divide and their social untouchability, emphasizing the gap between Parsi and lower-caste characters. Three characters are turned into a crowd, and then animalised into pigs who would jeopardise Dina’s home. According to Derrida, there are dangers inherent to welcoming a guest: “For unconditional hospitality to take place you have to accept the risk of the other coming and destroying the place, initiating a revolution, stealing everything, or killing everyone” (1999: 70). The fear is even more present in Dina whose situation in society as a widow and a Parsi is precarious, and whose lifestyle is under the permanent scrutiny of the rent collector. In this position, welcoming men under her roof is a daring act which could damage her reputation, and she vehemently replies to one of the rent collector’s accusations: “How dare you! How dare you suggest I keep young men in my flat! Is that the kind of woman you think I am?” (Mistry, 1995: 354) Offering hospitality is all the more complicated as no firm line separates the private from the public realm, which means that one’s actions can be subjected to the gaze of society. Derrida underlines the importance of “the possibility of a rigorous delimitation of thresholds or frontiers: between the familial and the non-familial, between the foreign and the non-foreign, […] but first of all between the private and the public” (Derrida & Dufourmantelle, 2000: 47–49). Without these clearly delineated spaces, one could argue that the host is not free to do what s/he wishes to do in their own home.

11The characters of Mistry’s novel are scared that their home may change, but they are even more worried about being dispossessed altogether by a guest who would become a parasite. In his short story “The Paying Guests”, which came out in the collection Tales from Firozsha Baag (originally published in 1987), a couple who has settled in a room rented out by a family in Bombay refuses to leave when they are required to and the story makes it clear that they might be allowed to stay, following the judgement of the court. In A Fine Balance, Dina’s landlord threatens to evict her; yet as a tenant, she is also afraid of being pushed out by her subletters: “A trunk, a bag, or even a satchel with just two pyjamas and a shirt is the first step into a flat. Personal items stored on the premises—that’s the most common way of staking a claim. And the court system takes years to settle the case, years during which the crooks are allowed to stay in the flat.” (1995: 305) Refusing to welcome people or their suitcases in her house confirms her claim to territory, to having a place to call home. This is the continuation of a long battle that she has had to fight with her own family, for when her husband dies at the beginning of the novel, she is expected at first to come back and live with her brother.

12The risks taken by an individual welcoming others—what Le Blanc and Brugère call “ethical hospitality”—emphasize the need for a collective “political hospitality”. In the context of the important forced migrations in the last decades in Europe, the authors of La Fin de l’hospitalité (2018) regret the disappearance of hospitality as a political value, and assert that hospitality has been turned into a “moral or private supplement of soul” (Brugère & Le Blanc, 2018: 58). But political hospitality, in A Fine Balance, is precisely what is lacking. One only has to follow the journey of the two tailors to realise that the city fails to welcome the villagers into its realm, particularly when they belong to lower castes (the tailors are originally chamaars, and supposed to take care of dead animals’ bodies and tan their skins). Ishvar and Om have to leave their village in tragic circumstances and come to the city by the sea to make money, as so many migrants before and after them. Their arrival in the city marks the beginning of a slow descent, as all the doors remain closed: the tailors first go to a Muslim friend of a friend, who pretends not to know anything about their arrival and grudgingly lets them sleep outside, under his awning. Neither really inside, nor completely outside of the house, the tailors make do with the accommodation until they are relocated into a slum which also puts them at the margins of the city: they have to journey by train to reach Dina’s flat, where they work. The beautification programme in the city by the sea, as part of the Emergency laws, includes the destruction of slums and the removing of poorer populations to the outskirts of the town, as buses take them once to a political rally in the countryside and a second time, to a work camp providing them with “food, shelter, and clothing” (Mistry, 1995: 332), along with terrible working and living conditions. Throughout their experiences, Ishvar and Om are pushed towards the margins of the city and of the buildings they are allowed to inhabit: under the awning of a house, or at the entrance of a shop, they are never accepted inside. If cities have the potential to become sites of unconditional refuge, giving way to “a new cosmopolitics”, as Derrida argues in “On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness” (2001: 4), Sarbani Mohapatra and Tirtha Deb emphasize the dangerous consequences of the Emergency laws which “could turn the city into a dreadful and hostile reality for the urban poor overnight” (2017: 213). The individuals’ fear of welcoming guests is echoed even more forcefully on a broader level, as the city’s political leaders keep trying to evict workers who have come from villages far away from its confines.

Reimagining home through hospitality

13Faced with the hostility of public powers and their wish to remove the poorer populations away from the city, the narrative of A Fine Balance suggests that private hospitality is a bare minimum, an absolute necessity. Ironically, it is often those who have the least who actually open their doors or share their food with the others. As Ishvar perceptively notices, “[p]eople are scared of the homeless” (Mistry, 1995: 301), a sentence which applies to Dina for the first half of the novel. The narrative suggests that to avoid that fear, relationships have to evolve beyond interactions between social groups towards connections between individuals. Hence “the homeless”, a category of its own, is too big a group for Dina to take care of; incidentally, she initially refuses to attend to kittens which have established a home in her kitchen because “[she] cannot be responsible for all the homeless creatures in the world” (Mistry, 1995: 451).

  • 5 I am relying here on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom, according to George, “The other person (...)

14A conditional individual hospitality emerges from the story, which is not offered to the absolute Other,5 but to the individual with whom one may relate. As Sharmani Patricia Gabriel notices, “[g]radually, as Dina ‘connects’ with the experiences of the tailors, it becomes possible for Ishvar and Om to cross carefully-delineated spatial boundaries: they are allowed to use some of the most intimate recesses of domestic space such as the kitchen and the bathroom” (2003: 93–94). All the lines that Dina had erected and maintained in the first part of the novel, separating specific cups for the tailors and for herself, limiting the space to which they can access or the things that they are allowed to do in the flat, are slowly erased. By the end of the novel, all characters drink from any of the cups, Dina is providing them with tea and even dinner, and she is setting up their own private space on the veranda. For a short while, the four of them seem to have found a family in each other, as Dina even pretends to the rent-collector that Ishvar is her husband and Om and Maneck are their sons. Far from alienating the space of the flat, the presence of strangers inside it makes it more homely to Dina. This is best exemplified in the kitchen, a central place for hospitality for it is where food is prepared. When Dina first moves in, the kitchen is “the dingiest room in the flat” (Mistry, 1995: 40); when the flat is at its full, however, with Om, Ishvar and Maneck as her guests, it is “a bright place of mirth and energy” (1995: 400). If their shared happiness is short-lived, and the flat soon returned to its previous state of emptiness with the departure of Dina’s three guests, their experience under the same roof has successfully questioned the meaning of “home” and its relation to hospitality. It is quite clear, however, that rules are set for the makeshift family to function: whether it is Ishvar’s cleaning, or Om’s cooking, the guests, on their own initiatives, put themselves to work—as in a family.

15In the establishment of this makeshift family, characters seem to acknowledge the importance of what Saugata Bhaduri calls a “guestpitality” (Jeanniard du Dot & Mianowski, 2020). Taken from the field of tourism, the notion of “guestpitality” as Bhaduri defines it, is a change of focus within hospitality from host to guest. Bhaduri proposes that hospitality include the ethics of the guest and the responsibilities and duties which are theirs. The focus on the guest’s agency echoes the Hindi term for hospitality, “ātithya”, which comes from the term designating the guest (“atithi”) rather than the word for host. The guestpitality that is proposed in A Fine Balance means that guests can feel at home in the new space only if they manage to follow its laws. Dina, for instance, is not ready to let go of a certain number of rules to which her tenants have to adapt. When Om and Ishvar go back to their village to get Om married, Dina reflects on the hospitality that she will extend to his new wife: “she will have to understand it’s my house, and follow my ways, like [Maneck] and Ishvar and Om” (Mistry, 1995: 492). Dina is also adamant on the language which is to be used inside the flat, refusing swearwords, calling back “Language” (1995: 433) when the inhabitants cross the line she has set for acceptable language. For Derrida, this issue is one of the paradoxes of hospitality:

That is where the question of hospitality begins: must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term, in all its possible extensions, before being able and so as to be able to welcome him into our country? If he was already speaking our language, with all that that implies, if we already shared everything that is shared with a language, would the foreigner still be a foreigner and could we speak of asylum or hospitality in regard to him? (Derrida & Dufourmantelle, 2000: 15–17)

16Dina’s changing response to the strangers in her flat, who progressively turn into members of a chosen family, underlines the necessity of a common ground to share the same space. In this regard, Tabish Khair points out that the dialogue between Dina and the tailors is highly implausible: “Mistry’s main protagonists in the novel would not even be able to hold an extended, ‘intellectual’ conversation with each other in real life—thanks to the widely separate linguistic-discursive and socio-economic spaces that they occupy.” (2005: 324) The writing partly erases these distinctions (the visible signs of class, caste, religious and linguistic differences) as every character speaks the same language, from Om’s untouchable parents to the lawyer who advises Dina when she is about to be evicted from her flat. Yet verisimilitude only becomes an issue if one reads the novel as a realist text, as Peter Morey emphasizes (2004: 121). In Mistry’s novel, the diversity of characters does not prevent them from developing relationships despite the lines which divide them.

A literary hospitality

17Despite their differences, the characters manage to connect in a substantial way in A Fine Balance, by sharing their stories. What enables Dina truly to open the doors of her home to the tailors is the realisation that they, too, have a story to tell. Her discussion on the matter with Maneck, who has learnt about Om and Ishvar’s family’s tragic ending in the village, creates an epiphany: “I never knew… I never thought… all those newspaper stories about upper- and lower-caste madness, suddenly so close to me. In my own flat. It’s the first time I actually know the people.” (Mistry, 1995: 340) Dina is left speechless by Maneck’s revelations: the “stories about upper- and lower-caste madness”, when they are told in a newspaper, are plural and unrelatable; on the other hand, the story which has come “[i]n [her] own flat”, in her own home, gives way to a burst of empathy which triggers her subsequent proposition to let them stay in the flat. The shock of recognition is unhomely, in Homi Bhabha’s sense: “The borders between home and world become confused; and, uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other, forcing upon us a vision that is as divided as it is disorienting.” (1994: 9) The home threatens to turn into a defamiliarised space and requires of Dina that she readjust her relationship to Ishvar and Om. Only once Maneck has narrated their story can the tailors turn into human beings who are in need of help.

  • 6 The metaphor of the quilt also invites the readers to see hospitality as multi-layered in the novel (...)

18Hence sharing a common space is a way for characters to exchange stories, and let a common narrative emerge. The interweaving of these stories is repeatedly mentioned in the patchwork quilt that Dina is sewing throughout A Fine Balance. Daniele Rogobete has perceptively analysed the textile metaphors which permeate the novel and underlines the importance of the patches of the quilt, which represent different periods of time and experiences lived together, “a token of [the four characters’] friendship and a symbol of human solidarity” (Rogobete, 2009: 138)6. Hearing and telling stories is an ability that Om and Ishvar have perfected over their stay in Bombay; as Om notices, “[Bombay is a] story factory, […] a spinning mill” (Mistry, 1995: 383). In allowing these stories to be shared, the novel seems to extend the notion of hospitality to a metaphorical level. The home becomes the privileged space for these interactions as Maneck and Om are able to talk about their daily explorations and new events are experienced together.

  • 7 See for example Nilufer Bharucha: “[In A Fine Balance] Parsi ethnicity collided violently with wide (...)

19Inclusivity is one of Mistry’s goals in A Fine Balance, as he acknowledges in an interview with Robert McLay: “I made a conscious decision in this book to include more than this, mainly because in India seventy-five per cent of Indians live in villages and I wanted to embrace more of the social reality of India.” (1996: 18) Although in another interview, the author states that he intended to write “a short novel”, he explains: “I began to let the canvas grow, as it were, letting it expand. I quickly realized that if I continued in this way, it was going to give me a unique chance to tell not just a story set in the city, but also a story about village life.” (Shaikh, 2002) The novel manages to make space for these stories as the characters’ trajectories, before they cross paths, are recounted. If the sections about Om and Ishvar’s somewhat idealised life in the village have been criticised for lacking in verisimilitude,7 and running the risk of homogenizing and simplifying the “variety of subaltern experiences and responses” (Khair, 2005: 144), the novel invites its readers to look beyond the range of experiences usually depicted in fiction. This literary hospitality, so to speak, makes space for characters from various social backgrounds to enter and inhabit the home of fiction.

20In this analysis, I have tried to show that Mistry’s vision of a place to call home depends on the ability of the place and the people who inhabit it to make space for the other. This other, in the novel, is not a stranger, but someone who has accepted the rules of the house (being “guestpitable”) but also to share their story, creating a connection with the host. Hence owning a house of one’s own is not the precondition for showing hospitality; indeed, it is often those whose conditions are precarious who can understand and empathise with the predicament of the homeless and offer their help. Strikingly, then, in A Fine Balance, it is not the indigenous Indian in his/her original homeland, but the Parsi in her diasporic adoptive hostland and in her precarious homelessness, who becomes the crucible of hospitality. In making space for the characters’ stories in the novel, the narrative also suggests that a literary hospitality might emerge, giving voice to people from different communities. If the result of this attempt is not always a plausible tale, it does throw light on the predicament of others and emphasizes the importance of the stories they have to tell.

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Mistry Rohinton (2006), Tales from Firozsha Baag [1987], London: Faber and Faber.

Morey Peter (2004), Rohinton Mistry, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mohapatra Sarbani & Tirtha Deborah (2017), “The Bombay of Rohinton Mistry: Mapping the cityscape”, A Fine Balance and Such a Long Journey, Sanglap: Journal of Literary and Cultural Inquiry, 3(2), 204–239.

Rogobete Daniela (2009), “The Patch in the Quilt Textile Metaphors in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance”, British and American Studies, 15, 129–141.

Shaikh Nermeen (2002), “Rohinton Mistry: Family Matters, and Literary Ones”, available at Asia Society: <> (19 January 2021).

Zaehner Robert C. (1976), The Teachings of the Magi: Compendium of Zoroastrian Beliefs, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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1 According to Peter Morey, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked the President of India to declare the State of Emergency before she could effectively be debarred from holding public office for six years (after her judgement due to electoral malpractices in the 1971 General Election). This situation threatened civil liberties: “the right to trial was effectively suspended; public meetings were banned; newspapers were subject to strict controls; and even the writings of freedom of Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mahatma Gandhi were censored” (Morey, 2004: 99–100).

2 In his analysis of Zoroastrian beliefs, Robert C. Zaehner presents hospitality as one of the rules of good conduct in Parsi Zoroastrianism: “Do good and keep your doors open to any who may come from far or near, for he who does not do good and does not keep his doors open, will find the door of Heaven and Paradise (garodhman) closed to you.” (Zaehner, 1976: 111)

3 The position of the widow or divorcée coming back to her family’s place is a trope in Indian literature: in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Ammu is divorced and goes back to her family home; in Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, the judge’s wife is sent back to her sister and her husband. To a certain extent, this is also the case of Aunt Mira, in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, who is sent to live with the Das, her relatives, after her husband died. Although Mira has never lived with the Das before, it seems quite normal to the characters that she should go back to her side of the family. The precarity of women’s situations is emphasized in all these cases.

4 “Nous ne disons ‘faites comme chez vous, entrez’ que parce que nous savons fort bien que l’hôte ainsi accueilli ne pourra pas être pleinement chez lui et devra rester sur le perron même lorsqu’il est entré dans la demeure.” (Brugère & Le Blanc, 2018: 31)

5 I am relying here on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom, according to George, “The other person, the stranger is inassimilable, irreducible to any concept or possession; he/she is infinitely other than the same, the self.” (George, 2009: 34) Dina shares a bond with the tailors, as she was herself sewing before she hires them and acts as intermediary between them and the export company. Yet when she goes to her Nusswan’s place, this bond has to be hidden from him and his wife, for the presence of two beggars would probably be unacceptable to them. For Nusswan, Ruby or Dina’s Parsi friend, Ishvar and Om embody an absolute Other of sorts; they remain completely inassimilable, and their relation to Dina is incomprehensible.

6 The metaphor of the quilt also invites the readers to see hospitality as multi-layered in the novel, as it takes place on a national (the Parsi diaspora in India), regional (the lower-caste villagers in the city) and local (guests in Dina’s flat) level, but also develops across various social networks: those of the family (Dina at her brother’s), friends (Dina hosting her schoolfriend’s son Maneck) or work relations (Dina hosting the tailors).

7 See for example Nilufer Bharucha: “[In A Fine Balance] Parsi ethnicity collided violently with wider Indian spaces—a collision not always credible, as Mistry’s limitations as a Parsi and a diasporic prevented him from having a fuller understanding of the Dalit situation and the complex political forces at work during the Emergency period.” (Mistry: 16)

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Référence électronique

Natacha Lasorak, « Hosting and Homemaking in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995) »ILCEA [En ligne], 50 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Natacha Lasorak

PhD candidate, ENS Lyon & IHRIM.

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