Sunday 14 November 2021

Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness guest post by Reshma Ruia


Reshma Ruia is an award winning British Indian writer. She is the author of two novels, Something Black in the Lentil Soup and Still Lives, (out in 2022). Her novel manuscript, A Mouthful of Silence, was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Award. Her poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties was awarded the 2019 Word Masala Award. Reshma’s work has appeared in British and international journals and anthologies and has been commissioned by the BBC. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani, a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Her writing explores the preoccupations of those who possess a multiple sense of belonging. 

Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is her new short story collection. The stories explore universal themes of identity, culture and home and are about characters who are grappling with the socio-economic upheavals of contemporary life - everyday people whose lives oscillate between worlds and are shaped and reshaped by an imperative to anchor to a map or a feeling. A lonely woman develops an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity writer. A young man attends the funeral of his gay lover. A feisty woman escapes a life of domestic drudgery. Characters confronting ageing, love and displacement with anger, passion and quiet defiance. Characters in search of new beginnings and old certainties.   

So, over to Reshma…

I write novels, poetry and short stories and what unifies all three genres is that one is a storyteller in each medium. I find myself continually returning to the short story as a genre because I find it both challenging and exciting. Its finite length dictates that language matters. Every word carries weight and there is no room for digressions or self-indulgence within the narrative arc. The elements that make a memorable short story such as character, setting, conflict, plot and theme need to be accomplished within the boundaries of a particular word limit and yet short stories are full of possibilities. They enable one to be imaginative and experimental in creating different lives and settings, a smorsgbord for the reader to dip in and out. My favourite writers in this genre are Elizabeth Strout, James Salter, Jhumpa Lahiri and David Constantine. Vladimir Nabokov’s Symbols and Signs is a story I never tire of rereading. 

Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is a collection of fourteen stories spanning continents and cultures. While the setting may change from Rwanda to Japan, from suburban America to Goa, there are certain concerns and underlying themes that bind this collection together, a kind of leit motif that runs through them. These stories are about, ‘the people who were not in the papers ...who live in the blank white spaces at the edges of print,’ to paraphrase Margaret Atwood. 

The characters in Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness are imperfect beings, scarred by the vicissitudes of life. They can be compared to Kintsugi figures from Japanese pottery- their flaws highlight their vulnerability and humanity. In order to survive and thrive, they must make choices whilst grappling with changes brought about by socio-economic and emotional upheavals. Colm Toibin, the Irish novelist describes these stories as ‘explor(ing) areas of conflict in contemporary life - the modern versus the traditional or the individual versus the group or the ethical versus the practical. They dramatize the choices made and the effect of these choices on individual lives.’ I agree with his assessment. In the title story, Mrs Pinto, the main protagonist who works as a housekeeper has left her home and son behind in Goa, ‘She remembers the day and her early flight. She had left her son fast asleep, the bedsheet tangled around his little legs, his mouth open in a half-smile.’ She must weigh her individual happiness against her familial obligations. At one point in the story, she says, ‘she was tired of holding up her world.’

In A Simple Man, Pikku, a humble museum guard in a London museum reflects on his privileged childhood as a Ugandan-Asian and the subsequent expulsion by Idi Amin. Being uprooted from the familiar is a constant preoccupation of the protagonists in these stories. They are largely of Asian heritage and need to resist the gravitational pull of old, familiar ways in order to construct a new life. They are by-products not just of colonial history but also of modern migratory patterns where maps and borders get distorted and blurred in a never-ending search for economic and emotional security.  Stories such as The Lodger and Cookery Lessons in Suburbia examine the fragile and almost fraught attempts to lay down roots in a foreign land whilst trying to create a sense of home. Yousef, the lodger in the eponymous story cooks elaborate meals that remind him of his homeland in a suburban American kitchen. In a similar vein, in Cookery Lessons in Suburbia, two old women, one Korean and one Indian use food as a means to connect and cure homesickness. 

A desire to connect, to understand and be understood lies at the heart of the narrative arc of the collection. The worlds the characters inhabit are foreign and different, yet when they go beyond the superficial, they find the same yearning to connect, to understand and be understood.  In Days by the Sea, Ma, a retired politician seeks refuge in a seaside hotel in South India. She forms a friendship with her bodyguard, who recognises her loneliness because ‘he was as alone as her.’ A similar desire to be needed propels, Suman Bakshi, the central character in Soul Sisters. She develops an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity writer with tragic consequences. 

As a writer, I am particularly interested in writing about family dynamics. The family unit is where our earliest tragedies and triumphs are played out and their impact reverberates through one’s entire life. The parental shadow whether benign or malignant is especially evident within Asian families, where even adult children cannot quite escape the weight of parental expectation. This is vividly brought out in First Love and other betrayals, where Neil, the main protagonist renounces his love for his Rwandan boyfriend and settles for an arranged marriage with a family friend’s daughter. Another story that probes the minefield of the parent-child bond is A Birthday Gift, where a daughter unearths an unsavoury secret from her parents’ hitherto blemish free past. ‘And suddenly I want my parents to pack up and leave, dragging their shameful little secrets behind them. I want my life back- uncluttered, unshaded, Dettol-clean.’ In The Day After, a widower mourns the loss of his wife whilst reminiscing about their early married life. 

My roots straddle India, Italy and England. I am deeply interested in the coping mechanisms employed by the Asian diaspora to evoke a sense of home and belonging. How does one centre oneself whilst being defined as peripheral? How does one hold on to a particular sense of self when this very self is constantly evolving and being questioned by the host society. These stories in this collection attempt to shed light on the predicament of these modern times. The universal quest to improve one’s lot, to seek recourse from grief and to love and be loved is articulated through the life of these protagonists who are living out their own specific dramas against the seismic shifts caused by wars, colonialism, displacement and family breakdowns.

Details: Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is published in paperback by Dahlia Publishing (UK), priced in local currencies.