It’s a rare collection of short stories works as well as Reshma Ruia’s Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness: each of her stories is captivating without any that seem weaker than the others. The characters come from a variety of countries and continents, although most are of Indian descent. The overarching theme in these stories is a sense of missed or lost opportunity, beginning with the story for which the collection is named.
Mrs Pinto is a housekeeper for a wealthy family in the United Kingdom. She works hard to send money back to her husband and son in India; sometimes it seems as if she is the only one in her family willing to lift a finger. Her husband was injured in an accident at work and tells her over video chats that he needs more money. He is not nice about it. It doesn’t help that her employer has almost impossible standards of cleanliness.
The bathroom is bigger than Mrs. Pinto’s entire house in Canacona. She can eat choris pão off the floor if she wanted, but she still kneels down, her fingers running like a searchlight on the marble tiles. Not a speck of dirt.
Mrs Pinto wonders what happened to the man she married. And if her life sounds dismal, it only gets worse when she asks her employer for a raise to better support her family.
“First Love and other Betrayals” is another story that laments a missed opportunity. Married with children in the UK, Neel returns to his home country of Rwanda to attend his high school boyfriend’s funeral. His wife thinks he’s flying to Africa for business and has no clue about his past with Mugenzi. But before they passed away, Neel’s parents, who knew about Mugenzi, had insisted Neel “stick to your own kind”. Yet Neel feels so many regrets when he returns to Rwanda and thinks back to the point when he decided to follow his parents’ wishes and not his heart.
In “Days by the Sea”, a former prime minister of a country of a million people is the leader of the People’s Progress Party, a party that hopes to make a comeback with her at the helm. She had taken over her assassinated husband’s role as Prime Minister sometime after his death. Yet she’s tired and doesn’t wish to remain in politics. She thinks back to a time when the course of her life took another direction.
She had let down her husband on his last day. Crowds bored her, so she’d told him to go out alone and bask in their applause. She was sitting at her dressing table, massaging her scalp with oil that smelled of Alpine pine needles when she heard the police sirens shrill, the cawing of crows, the bleating of the ambulance horn, the wailing of the Party faithful bereft of their leader.
Resemblances to either Sonia Gandhi or Benazir Bhutto are probably not coincidental.
Other stories involve parents flying halfway around the world to help out with the grandchildren. In “Be A Soldier”, a Chinese couple leaves Guangzhou for the UK to help their son and his English wife with their first baby while in “Cookery Lessons in Suburbia”, an Indian grandmother tries to befriend a South Korean grandmother, both women giving up their lives back home to help their grandchildren in the United States. Cultural differences are treated with sympathy and balance. The English daughter-in-law may seem stubborn and close-minded, yet Ruia understands her need to exert her independence during her first pregnancy. The two grandmothers’ pride sometimes threatens their budding friendship but both sides are presented with empathy.
To round the collection out, the final story, “Springtime in Japan”, is a timely tale about feeling trapped in another country, away from family, as the current pandemic reaches around the world in early 2020. Ruia often concludes her stories with ambiguous endings, but it takes little imagination to guess how this last story ends.