~A Tasty Mix~
Bombay Bhel by Ken Doyle is a collection of short stories set in Mumbai. Doyle was born in the city, part of a family with Anglo-Indian heritage and Portuguese Goan connections but his stories reflect the rich culture of the city, offering short stories from across the class and religious groups of Mumbai. He left India to move to the USA as a student and set up home in Wisconsin from where he wrote Bombay Bhel.
Bhel - or to give its longer name, Bhelpuri - is a type of Indian street food, comprising a mix of grains and vegetables all mixed together with spicy sauce. Each city or region has its own twists on Bhelpuri and Mumbai's version - Bombay Bhelpuri - is sold widely throughout the city, especially on its beaches such as Chowpatty. I assume that the book's title is symbolic of the 'mix' that characterises the city and which Doyle reflects in his stories.
~Plenty to Choose From~
Whilst I generally prefer novels, I sometimes find books of short stories handy for when I'm travelling and can't really settle to getting stuck into a 'proper' book. Bombay Bhel offers a total of nine short stories, some loosely linked via schools or colleges that the characters have attended or locations where they live but each story can be read on its own as a stand-alone tale. Like the ingredients of the Bhelpuri, each ingredient is somehow enhanced by the others and I assume that is what Doyle has tried to achieve with this book.
We kick off with 'Aam Papad', a story about Hassan, a young Muslim street food vendor going in search of his relatives after violent riots in a district of the city and a Christian Goan schoolboy who misses Hassan and is concerned when he goes missing, off in search of his family. The aam papad of the title is a type of dried, leathery mango that's used in street food.
In the second story, 'A Different Music', a Parsi musician thinks back on his school days and the influence of his teacher who has recently died. The teacher, Mr Watson, was the only non-Jesuit in the school and was disapproved of by the brothers but became principal thanks to the endorsement of his predecessor. It's a story about doing the right thing, playing the game fairly even if doing so means you lose.
In 'Independence Day' an elderly Christian widow prepares to leave the home she shared with her husband and move in with her son and his wife whilst in 'Retribution', a young shop keeper fights to keep his business after thugs ransack his shop and he falls into debt to try to keep working. As the money lenders and the landlords lose patience, his life becomes fraught with danger. 'Cats' features a batty old English lady who shares her home with felines and has her home repossessed by the local government because she's not Indian.
'The Wedding Gift' is the story of a young couple who are given an apartment by the bride's parents and can find no peace due to the obligation under which it places them. 'The Deep Blue Sea' is about a young man who yearns to get a place at an American university to do scientific research but is working in an advertising agency, desperate to get out and use his education. 'Solar Power' takes a novel approach to a contemporary problem facing Mumbai's Parsee community, that of how to get rid of the bodies of their dead now that the traditional ways of putting them out to be eaten by vultures are under threat due to declining numbers of birds. Entrepreneurship is one of the classic characteristics of the Indian psyche and this is a fascinating story. The final story is 'Bhel Plaza', a lovely little tale about a street food vendor who keeps getting forced to rebuild his stall in order to meet changing local regulations.
~In the Mix~
There's something about Mumbai which seems to provide writers with a rich seam of stories into which they can tap. I've been reading books set in India for many years and of all the Indian cities, Mumbai is the one that inspires writers more than any other. Each of these little stories has elements which could easily have been expanded into something longer or more special. Personally I like short stories that come with unexpected twists or surprising outcomes but these are mostly rather straight-forward, linear stories with simple structures and not too many surprises. A few times I felt sure there must be something more to come, only to have the story fizzle out, leaving me wondering if it could have been rather more than it was.
The author's Christian Goan roots do perhaps give the stories a slightly different flavour than those of local writers from other ethnic groups even though he seems to have tried to maintain a sense of balance and a distribution of great diversity that reflects the city's make up. I would say that the stories are good but not great, sometimes moving but rarely magical, not quite fascinating but fairly forgettable. I don't regret the time I spent reading them, but I doubt very much that I'd want to read them a second time.
~Free - my favourite price~
Bombay Bhel was my March choice from the Amazon Kindle Owners Lending Library and I'll be returning it shortly to make my April choice. This scheme allows members of Amazon Prime to borrow one e-book per month off an extensive list of titles. When I signed up for Prime I decided to try to get maximum value out of the scheme by taking a book each month and to try to pay for my Prime membership by reviewing each of those books. This isn't the worst I've had from the scheme but it's certainly not the best either.
Bombay Bhel, by Ken Doyle
Published by Loquent Press
In Paperback - 188 pages
Kindle format £1.95 or on free loan for Prime members.