Reshma Ruia’s debut novel and collection of poetry have won accolades and her short stories have been published in many British and international journals. Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is her debut short story collection.
The collection stands out for its characters and setting. Ruia excels in building different worlds and strategically leaving her characters to navigate their circumstances. Whether it is Mrs Pinto – who dreams of Palolem beach while scrubbing tiles in a London townhouse – or Neel – a married man who visits Rwanda for his gay lover’s funeral – the characters are ordinary, everyday people who leave an impression in the reader’s memory. The distinct characterisation is skilfully balanced with perspectives that further elevate the narrative.
For instance, in the titular story, ‘Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness,’ Ahmed’s version of Blackpool is very vivid and romantic: ‘The lights at night are like a necklace of diamonds and the cold air is good for your soul…’ But Mrs Pinto sees it in black and white: ‘She googled Blackpool once and was shocked to see pictures of boarded up shops and sea the colour of dishwater.’
This diversity in perspectives is also evident when Mrs Ibrahim carelessly responds to Mrs Pinto’s request for a loan.
‘It’s to repair the roof.’
‘What roof are you talking about? Our house is good.’
Their eyes meet in the mirror. Mrs. Pinto sighs. She needs to simplify and elaborate her request to the woman who sits hunched in front of the dressing table painting her eyebrows with a crayon.
Mrs Pinto begins again.
‘I need extra money to repair the roof of my house in Canacona. The monsoons are coming. My son also needs a new uniform.’
In this this well-crafted scene, a casual exchange deftly encapsulates the power play and superficiality of the upper classes.
Similarly, the political ramifications of the Idi Amin regime are juxtaposed with the personal when Neel returns to Rwanda to attend the funeral of his gay lover in ‘First Love and Other Betrayals.’ ‘To think how much your father had done for that country. Gave them jobs, sold cars on credit and this is the gratitude we get,’ says Neel’s mother. Like many Ugandan Asians, their family was forced to leave their business and home behind under the Idi Amin Regime of the 70s. However, this perspective is questioned when Neel meets an acquaintance in Rwanda who speaks of his father, Salim, differently: ‘Mr Salim was a good man, but he ran away like a thief.’
That sense of betrayal is mirrored in Neel’s own relationship when he recalls his last confrontation with his gay lover Mugenzi: ‘Is this how you leave me, Neel? You think it is so easy to get away.’
The theme of immigration runs through some of the stories too. In ‘The Lodger,’ an elderly couple, Mandy and Bill, take in Lebanese tenant Yousef Kemal to help with the bills and for company. Ruia distils the essence of old age when she describes Mandy’s solitude as ‘not lonely in a vein cutting, circus clown way but in a silent window watching way.’ Halfway through the story, as the couple’s insular mindset becomes apparent, Kemal says, ‘There is a big world outside this house, Mrs Mandy. Please pay attention to it.’ Ruia then takes this predictability and overturns it when towards the end it is not only Kemal but also the reader who is caught off-guard.
That sense of surprise is reiterated in ‘In my Mother’s Twelfth Suitor’ where an anecdote by the narrator’s mother takes an unconventional turn. In the ‘The Birthday Gift’ the daughter sets out to celebrate a special occasion with her parents only to feel disillusioned by the end of it. It is this subtle unpredictability that is the USP of Ruia’s stories.
Ruia’s multicultural identity comes to fore when she comfortably handles ‘the other’ in her stories. Whether it is the Chen couple meeting their English daughter-in-law in ‘Be a Soldier’ or Mrs Murthy befriending her Korean neighbour Mrs Kim in ‘Cookery Lessons in Suburbia,’ she deftly moves through different cultures, while maintaining authenticity.
In ‘Be a Soldier,’ the tension is seamlessly inserted through cultural connotations, for instance when Mrs Chen receives a present from her daughter-in-law and she retorts, ‘Why shoes? In China, we give fruits or flowers,’ and through food references in ‘Cookery Lessons in Suburbia’ when upon learning that her friend Mrs Kim’s son has gone missing, Mrs Murthy visits her only to find the distraught woman vigorously stirring kimchi that looks like a coagulated mess, reflecting the situation Mrs Kim finds herself in.
The theme of ageism takes on a dark and twisty shade in some of the stories. Newly divorced Suman Bakshi finds a ‘Soul Sister’ in her favourite writer, and in ‘The Day After’ old Mr Jones, who is getting very forgetful, has a moment of clarity when he decides to step out of his house to cancel his dead wife’s magazine subscription.
Whether in domestic or political spheres, Ruia’s characters are all ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Caroline in ‘Cooking Chicken in Kentucky’ sees a son when she finds a refugee boy in her car, and Maa, in ‘Days by the Sea,’ wants to discard the ‘mother of the nation’ tag. In Ruia’s hands, their lives glitter with perspective. As with the unreliable narrator in ‘Someone to Take my Place’ who decides to find a replacement wife for her husband once she is convinced she is going to die, Ruia breathes insight into the characters with just a few details.
It’s a happy enough life. Lived under the secure jobs and a heathy pension and out of season trips to countries whose names sound like fruit drops on one’s tongue. My illness has no room in such a marriage.
These everyday characters navigate their worlds with not flamboyance but a quiet defiance, even if it feels a bit extreme at times. Whether it is Mr Basu, the soft spoken academic stranded in Japan due to the pandemic in ‘Springtime in Japan,’ or the museum guard in ‘The Simple Man’ who takes a drastic step to fulfill his sister’s wish, Ruia’s characters are diverse and yet united in their commitment towards their loved ones.
Full of subtle and incisive observations, the stories stand out for their ability to move the reader, lingering long after the last page is turned.
Asha Krishna started her writing career as a journalist in India, now she writes short stories and flash. She is a proud mentee of the Middleway Mentoring Project, a professional scheme for early stage writers. Her work has been published in print and online. She lives in Leicestershire and tweets as @ashkkrish.