Reshma Ruia | Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness | Dahlia Publishing: £10.00
Reshma Ruia’s, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is a quiet, contemplative short story collection that asks what happens to immigrants’ dreams in the age of globalisation.
What is striking about Ruia’s debut short story collection is that all her characters are in a state of transition, either arriving in a foreign country, welcoming strangers into their homes, or relocating to a remote spot to see out their remaining days. Transition is the central theme, visual motif and narrative force which ties the collection’s stories together and is handled with dexterous care and subtlety by Ruia; the stories are meditative reflections on characters realising that their dreams are unachievable in the new global age. The reader is often caught off-guard, with epiphanic moments of disillusionment at the deceptiveness of the promises of globalisation, world citizenship and multiculturalism.
Ruia’s skill is in avoiding cliché and stock characterisation that too many collections focused on the immigrant experience fall into, resulting in disappointing collections that present pastiches of the immigrant experience and one-dimensional characters who conform to the same worn-out tropes of alienation and isolation. Ruia, with understated deftness, presents fully-fleshed out characters who feel the entire plethora of human emotions. The collection’s main focus is on the clash between an older generation who take pleasure in the simple locality of their homes coming into confrontation with a younger immigrant generation who have embraced globalisation at the expense of their heritage. From the Chens in ‘Be A Soldier’, who feel like their son is losing his Chinese culture, due to the influence of his newly English pregnant wife, to Mrs Murthy in ‘Cookery Lessons in Suburbia’ who flies to America every year and struggles to instil the virtues of Indian culture and food on her American granddaughter.
Ruia expertly crafts characters torn between their dreams and ambitions and the realities of globalisation. From Dr Basu in ‘Springtime in Japan’, an expert in ancient burial rituals about to give a conference to a delegation in Japan who suffers from terrible homesickness and dreams of returning to his wife and their comfortable home in ‘Woodford’, only to find himself caught up in the increased terror of the realities of being stuck in a foreign country at the start of the global pandemic, to the titular Mrs Pinto in ‘Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness’ who must face up to the realities of an abusive husband, exploitative employers, and a son she is growing more distant from as she works in the Northwest of England to support her family back in India.
One of the key strengths of the collection is that in all of the stories Ruia makes readers sympathise with the characters, despite their flaws, faults, and the mistakes they make. It is rare to read a collection where the characters and their personal situations and disillusionment leave a lingering impression for days afterwards. As Ruia’s stories ultimately ask the reader would they have acted any differently?
The two standout stories in the collection, ‘First Love and Other Betrayals’ and ‘Cooking Chicken in Kentucky’, encapsulate Ruia’s brilliance at presenting deeply moving but flawed characters, who come to the realisation of the importance of human connection and relationships a little too late. In ‘First Love and Other Betrayals’ Neel returns to Rwanda to attend the funeral of his homosexual lover Mugenzi. It is Neel’s recollections of his childhood with Mugenzi, and what he lost by losing touch with Mugenzi once he immigrated to England, that is truly moving. The shocking revelation at the end of ‘First Love and Other Betrayals’ shows the power of Ruia’s writing to confront the reader with the true consequences of grief and loss. In ‘Cooking Chicken in Kentucky’, Caroline’s middle class privilege and comfort is broken when her and her husband unknowingly stow a child refugee from Calais to the sanctity and comfort of their home in suburban middle England. Caroline realises that the child refugee is a human being with hopes, dreams, and ambitions, shattering her belief in the demonising political rhetoric of illegal immigrants. Once again, it’s a protagonist’s inability to realise the importance of human connection sooner that adds emotional gravitas to the story’s ending.
Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is one of those rare collections that moves readers to reflect on the lives of their friends, neighbours, and strangers their lives briefly intersect with as it asks the reader to identify and reflect on the consequences of globalisation. In a world where it is claimed that people are more interconnected than ever, why do so many people feel lonely and disillusioned? Ruia’s collection gives readers the opportunity to meditate on this 21st century phenomenon.
By Paul Anthony Knowles