The short story has undergone a renaissance in recent years, in large part due to the Internet. Readers are discovering and rediscovering the distinct pleasures of this venerable literary form, which traditional publishing had tended to neglect. Shorter works can not only be bought at online stores and enjoyed at leisure, they can also be downloaded piecemeal and read on handheld devices whenever we have a few minutes to spare (hence the phenomenal success of Wattpad).
Ken Doyle’s collection Bombay Bhel takes its name from the Indian savoury snack associated with the beaches of Mumbai. As that milieu suggests, the stories in Bombay Bhel frequently concern the underclass struggling to make a living in the rapidly transforming social and economic landscape of late twentieth-century Bombay (now Mumbai), where the imperative to modernize in pursuit of prosperity coexists with traditional values and prejudices concerning marriage, religion and respectability. The intimate juxtaposition of privilege and deprivation, ambition and bare survival is certainly not peculiar to India, but it is particularly striking. Bombay Bhel also draws us into sympathetic understanding with young educated people eager to succeed in the new society, but who are obliged to take account of the more conservative expectations of parents and neighbours.
The sixth story in the collection, ‘The Wedding Gift’, contains a telling metaphor that could stand for Doyle’s reflections on his experience of India and his characters’ lives. Vincent and Diana, an upwardly mobile middle-class young couple, move into their new flat in a desirable Bandra neighbourhood of Bombay, purchased for them by his parents. Their good fortune is undermined by their sense of obligation to his parents, whose generosity can also be read as a subtle form of continuing control. Vincent and Diana immediately smell a rat – literally so, as it turns out that the seriously unpleasant aroma that permeates their new home emanates from the decomposing corpse of a rat caught in the drain beneath the kitchen sink. Vincent deals with the nauseating problem, but he and Diana are ultimately unable to adapt themselves to what it represents. A psychosexual theme is unobtrusively stressed in terms of the couple’s new-found freedom to make love as noisily as they wish, yet what Shakespeare termed ‘the worm in the bud’ is signified by the presence of Muneera, a prostitute in a neighbouring flat to whom Vincent is drawn in a mixture of physical attraction and emotional empathy. Indeed, Muneera, an intelligent, sympathetic and relatively minor character who is the object simultaneously of gossip, lust and social outrage, is at the emotional heart of the story. Her probable inability to put the past behind her is implicitly contrasted with Vincent and Diana’s power to move on.
It is difficult for a writer to depict people from ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ social strata without in some way belittling one or the other. For the most part, these stories succeed in presenting lives lived in dire circumstances without condescension or misplaced humour. The continuous battle for survival fought by poor people amid corruption and implacable bureaucracy is nicely evoked, as is society’s capacity suddenly to explode into persecution and violence, often from the most unlikely quarters.
The author was born in Bombay (as it was then called), into a family with Portuguese and Anglo-Indian roots. I presume that means a relatively privileged background, especially as his transfer to the United States for graduate studies parallels the journey so devoutly wished for by some of the characters in these stories. Yet I also imagine that no one with a trace of awareness and social conscience could fail to encounter the extremes of Indian society, or remain unaware of the intricate web of dependencies and connections linking each and everyone. It is this interconnectedness – sometimes terrible, sometimes wonderful, oftentimes also an unbridgeable chasm – that provides the overarching theme for Bombay Bhel. Evidently, Ken Doyle follows the old adage and writes of what he knows: the Goan and Anglo-Indian minorities living in Bombay before the turn of the millennium.
However, for me, Bombay Behl only really gets going from the fourth story onwards. In my opinion, the first three stories contain insufficient narrative thrust and end abruptly and seemingly without point. A critic has to be careful here and consider whether or not apparent inconsequentiality conceals profundities: I suggest that here it does not. I had the impression that the author grew in confidence and ambition only with the fourth story (‘Retribution’). This is a shame, as it’s more than likely that readers will gain a false impression of what remains in store for them and perhaps give up.
Neither is Bombay Behl a treasure trove of memorable turns of phrase and evocative images: these are stories, for example, in which trains wheeze in relief, slow to a crawl and come to a dead stop (all from the first sentence of the first story, ‘Aam Papad’). Clichés seldom come as thick and fast as this and, fortunately, they rarely attain this frequency in the rest of Bombay Behl.
Thus, the pleasures afforded by these stories lie elsewhere than in originality of language. Rather, it is the paradoxes and contradictions of Bombay as it heads towards global-city status, and how people living there deal with them, that provide an interestingly immersive experience for the reader. In their depiction of ambition and frustration, unexpected opportunity and mental confusion, I was reminded of Satyajit Ray’s wonderful Mahanagar (‘The Big City’, 1963), a work in a different medium and set in the 1950s. That there exist continuities and comparisons with Ray’s masterpiece is not to suggest Bombay Behl is remotely close to that film’s achievement – after all, what is? Nevertheless it is a considerable compliment.
So, despite these reservations, I enjoyed Bombay Bhel and I wish it well. I also look forward to reading more from Ken Doyle.