Published by Loquent Press as an ebook and paperback
The Gateway of India is an appropriate image for Ken Doyle’s latest collection of short stories, all of which are concerned in one way or another with possession and dispossession. The Gateway stands at the tip of Apollo Bunder in Mumbai and overlooks Mumbai harbour. It was constructed by the British in 1924, officially to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. Unofficially, of course, it symbolized the power of the British Raj and British ‘ownership’ of the entire subcontinent. Nowadays it is a major tourist attraction and is colonized by street merchants, food vendors and photographers.
I reviewed Ken Doyle’s collection of short stories Bombay Behl a couple of months ago (see post). This new collection, Gateway of India, extends and broadens the themes of the earlier book, visiting a wider range of characters from various backgrounds, many of whom are linked by family and geographical ties (and a love of cricket). The author’s affection and empathy for all his characters are once again in evidence, as is his sense of the interconnections that exist above and beneath explicit awareness. The vast disparities of wealth and education in India that separate castes and classes, plus the complications of religious affiliation, mean that even the lowliest daily choices and activities can be freighted with significance, particularly for those who live on the brink of precarity.
If we include the ‘bonus’ story the author provides, this collection is framed by Dr Frank Rebello, whose ‘Escape to Calangute’ in the opening story of that title describes the retirement of a good man and a good doctor. ‘Saturday Date’, set before his retirement, shows him caring for Mary, a mendicant singer with a little girl to support, and whose visions of the Virgin are accompanied by searing headaches. For me, ‘Saturday Date’ – told in the immediacy of the present tense – is the finest story in the collection, and Mary its most interesting character. We accompany Mary as she makes the rounds, singing ‘You are my sunshine’ for money thrown from people’s balconies and the occasional handful of food. There is genuine pathos here that is neither sentimental nor disempowering.
Despite pain and hardship, despite the deeply unfair society they must learn to navigate, the lowliest characters can and do give so much of themselves. In ‘A Matter of Chemistry’, Mr Thadani, who sells door to door in order to supplement his teaching income, provides a student with a simple chemistry set that sets him on the path to knowledge and a career. In ‘Empty Nest’, it is wealthy Rupa who provides shelter to her servant Shanti and her children, and who adjusts with casual ease to the removal of Shanti and the need to hire a new servant.
‘I think we need to anchor our lives in something that is invariant, while the world around us continues to mutate and evolve,’ says another character, a traditional healer, who speaks for many of the people we meet in this collection. Lives can change with appalling suddenness – on a bureaucratic whim, a slum can be cleared and its inhabitants shipped back to their native villages. ‘I put my arms around her then, and together, we grieved for lives lost and those that were never to be’ – the concluding line to ‘The Healer’s Burden’ is an act of mourning and solidarity, and a summation of the suffering, visible and invisible, that haunts the lives of so many in Bombay.
The eponymous novella included in Gateway of India shows us good people striving to protect themselves and each other in ways that are sometimes self-destructive and shortsighted. The community of Chughani Manor – around which most of these stories revolve, and whose characters’ names and outcomes crop up agreeably throughout the collection – is, I take it, a microcosm of everyday life in the big city, replete with petty prejudices and acts of generosity, social cohesion and harsh ostracisms. People get by somehow, find happiness and sorrow, live and die. We readers weep for the pain of the world.
Gateway of India comprises simple stories simply told. In my opinion, the author is more confident here than in his earlier collection, more ambitious. I think he could afford to be more ambitious still, especially with his language and with form. The effect of these stories is cumulative and verges on the sociological: a society in transition that yet clings to its traditions is revealed via the unremarkable lives of ordinary folk doing the best they can. The stories leave room for goodness and redemption and love. These are all good things and good to read about. I have enjoyed reading more from Ken Doyle.