Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

…A Holiday From Life : Still Lives, By Reshma Ruia

Some things are only ever truly comprehensible when viewed from a highly specific vantage point. Authors, as artists, understand the potency of well executed anamorphic legerdemain as a literary device. Such a technique simultaneously shatters a reader’s subjective cynosure, whilst empowering that of the author’s fictional chief protagonist.

Reshma Ruia’s debut short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness forces her reader to interpret the lived reality of her vividly drawn characters, not through our own censorious normative bias, but directly through the cynosure of those whose story is being told. Our moral and ethical judgement is tipped off balance, with the consequence that unanticipated compassion becomes the moral compass we use to navigate the lives of those filling the book’s scintillating pages.

Ruia trusts us to judge her characters not with cold noetic minds, but with authentic, life-schooled hearts.
Ruia’s latest long fiction offering, Still Lives sees the author once again give us emotionally charged, character-led drama, told exclusively through the prism of a flawed chief protagonist struggling with professional and personal aporia. She adroitly uses this unreliable first person reported speech narrative as an artfully made armature upon which to hang her sobering, but unflinchingly humanistic themes.

Authorial reticence ensures that the reader is left entirely unmolested by irritating didactic meddling. The novel’s truths are allowed to speak for themselves and this lends book an all too often overlooked virtue…space for the reader. Ruia trusts us to judge her characters not with cold noetic minds, but with authentic, life-schooled hearts. As such, though her novel is both poignant and tragic, it’s a carefully modulated gem which laces its sadness with notes of redemptive tenderness, emotionally elevating it above the broken people it depicts.

As for plot, the novel focusses upon its chief protagonist, PK Malik, a first generation Indian migrant whom we meet twenty-five years after swapping Bombay for Manchester in pursuit of a glittering career within French haute couture. Having intended to take up a scholarship in America, PK’s flight made a brief stopover in Manchester. Persuaded by his rather unctuous accountant friend Gupta, PK decides to put his dreams on hold, and temporarily spend time with Gupta. PK’s romanticised ambitions soon deliquesce into a life within the local rag trade, with him becoming a moderately successful manufacturer of cheap designer knock-offs.

As PK and his mistress, Esther, fornicate in a shabby backstreet hotel...
Fifteen years after arriving in the UK, PK has prospered sufficiently to relocate from Longsight with its, “noisy West Indian neighbours”, to Bloomsbury Close in Timperley, just south of Manchester, remarking, “We have British neighbours – proper ones with English as their first language”. All this forms PK’s backstory, for we meet him on the eve of his fifty-fifth birthday. His own reality has become a shabby, ersatz version of his dreams, echoing the trade he plies.

The man telling us his story, warts-and-all, is a jaded, if handsome, second-tier entrepreneur, disenchanted with life and no longer in love with his devoted, if naive Indian wife, Geeta. Worse still, he looks upon his troubled young son Amar with callous, guilty disappointment and tendentious detachment. His once thriving business is beginning an inexorable decent into failure and cherished professional dreams have been entirely enervated by the grubby tendrils of mundane life and his own lack of personal conviction to realise them. The rhythms of domestic life run inconspicuously contrapuntal to his those faintly beating within his unconfronted soul, with PK becoming ever more aware of this syncopated beat. He is withering under the weight of his own regrets.

Unsurprisingly, an entirely unintended affair with the lubricious, emotionally damaged trophy wife of an all-powerful Jewish garment baron, proves to be the seedy catalyst and signifier of a nascent midlife crisis. As PK and his mistress, Esther, fornicate in a shabby backstreet hotel, a repressed chasm of regret opens up, threatening to engulf PK and those who depend upon him. As with Kurtz, PK looks into that abyss, albeit with elliptical self-deceit and misguided emotional yearnings, only to find his own flaws staring back at him.

Gupta is a meddling, libidinous gossip, Amar unrelentingly gluttonous and selfish...
What follows is the steady, guilt-strewn disintegration of his sense of self and the jagged flotsam left in the wake of his deluded, but understandable search for happiness. With each taste of liberation from the confines of a life he cannot cherish, real or imagined, PK becomes progressively self-destructive and unable to protect those around him from the claws of his own pain. PK’s life unravels before our eyes, his fate not a deterministic necessity, but the almost hubristic consequence of his own disillusioned psyche.

Ruia’s character rendition is sublime. A forensic attention to detail allows each of her creations to invest the story with emotional verisimilitude. Idiomatic language further deepens her portrayals, the characters never use a lazy expostulatory stereotype. I warmed to none of them, in fact I actively disliked most of the people populating our tale. PK is odiously self-absorbed, his wife Geeta horrifically naïve, if both pitiably loyal and kind.

Gupta is a meddling, libidinous gossip, Amar unrelentingly gluttonous and selfish, offering the reader few reasons to forgive his truculence, or misbehaviour until the proverbial penny drops. Esther, PK’s temptress, is a vacuous, materialistic snob drowning in expensive jewellery and the odious fragrance of expensive perfume and stale cigarettes.

Yet, though all Ruia’s cast are flawed, PK’s observation that, “we’re all shuffling towards nothingness. We’ve all lost our appetite for life”, serves to save each and every one of them from opprobrium. We are all too conscious that these broken people have been mangled on the rack of misfortune. Their failings do not invite our enmity, they catalyse our empathy.

Though it is likely that many readers may not unconditionally warm to Ruia’s emotionally fractured protagonists, this copacetic dynamic twixt author and reader allows Ruia to delicately explore the liminal, osmotic boundary between fault, and blame. Her reader is subtly encouraged to resist the temptation to judge harshly, and in so doing, the illusory divide falsely demarcating right from wrong is gracefully dismantled.

Atomistic, assiduously nuanced character portrayal perfectly supports the novel’s multifaceted thematic complexity, as does its linear narrative arc. Themes germinate in minor details, idiosyncratic traits, and habituated behaviours, before burgeoning into the ugly flowers of recognisable, if unsettling truths. Rooted in what has gone before, the thematic ylem of the novel is an organic, humanistic material, rather than a set of constructs clumsily grafted onto an otherwise sad tale. As such, we engage with Ruia’s themes as feeling people, not detached moral arbiters reaching cold conclusions bereft of a, “there but the grace of God, go I” tenderness.

The book gives its reader an intimate portrayal of the specific struggles faced by first generation Indian immigrants building a life away from home
Ruia explores the idea of betrayal of both self and others, and in so doing, encourages the reader to confront what it means to be an authentic individual. The lacuna between one’s concept of self and the larvatus prodeo presented to the world, is fertile ground for the mould of regret to blight genuine happiness. The notion of belonging though is the novel’s central motif, with Ruia documenting what most humans hope: to be at one with one’s surroundings, and truly connected to a place one can call home. All PK’s woes stem from his lived reality being at odds with his sense of self, for he cannot belong to the world around him, or the version of himself and others inhabiting it.

As with her short story collection, Still Lives is a novel about frustrated hope and the search for happiness. Socrates said, “The secret to happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less”. Yes. The book gives its reader an intimate portrayal of the specific struggles faced by first generation Indian immigrants building a life away from home; however its themes are universal, not parochial. We recognise in the particular the ubiquitous, and this lifts Ruia’s novel far above the shabby dysfunctionality of one man dealing with his own regrets.

In Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness, Ruia’s use of symbolism animates her tale with a scintillating visceral imagery, entirely obviating the need for prolix exposition, or turgid thematic clarification. PK’s doomed efforts to grow a mango tree in his back garden perfectly encapsulates its myriad themes and the struggles endured by its characters. Like Forster’s cave in A Passage To India, this piece of sedulously crafted, achingly poignant symbolism is akin to a Rosetta Stone unlocking the novel’s message…

“My tree stands forlorn, a skeleton of brown twigs. It looks like a refugee next to the thick, lush green of the other shrubbery - an intruder with sad memories of sunshine days woven into its bark. It’s no different to Geeta, who continues to live in the shadows of her sunlit Bombay youth”.

Still Lives, as the title suggests, is a sublimely nuanced portrait of people whose identities have become little more than frozen representations of themselves no longer consistent with their surroundings, or desires. Above all, it’s a moving account of self-destruction moored in the recognisable waters of quotidian reality. The perils of leading an inauthentic, delusional life presented with consummate finesse, authorial elan and tender-hearted realism. Ruia is an author who richly deserves a wide audience, for we live in times calling for her brand of compassion, not the steely hearted mantras relentlessly assailing us from every quarter.

Still Lives is published by Renard Press