Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love

“India is not a country ... but a continent and a contradictory continent,” says Rumer Godden, introducing this collection of thirteen stories. Rumer and Jon were raised in Bengal in the first years of this century, and they attempt in these vignettes to capture the paradox and diversity of India. The stories roam from missionary hospitals and bazaars in Calcutta to the lakes and tribal huts of the Himalayas. Animals play nearly as great a role as humans; monkeys, parrots, wild ducks, budgerigars, rams, goats, and sacred bulls struggle and suffer alongside beggars and farmers and shop clerks. The Goddens’ central theme is clear in the title, a phrase taken from William Blake: Mercy, pity, peace, and love are desperately needed and horribly lacking in the chaotic lives of most Indians.

This is not, as one might gather, a cheery book. It is full of tragic misunderstandings, manipulation, and death. Several of the best stories deal with one individual finding a dignified path through the melee or transcending some personal blindness. “The Little Black Ram” is a classic coming-of-age story, in which Ali, a violent young orphan in a nomadic clan, finds his soul through caring for a troublesome ram. In “The Oyster,” Gopal, a Brahmini Hindu boy on school break in Paris, sees his life entire, in all its confusion, during the course of one remarkable meal. And in “Rahmin,” a British writer is made to see the luxurious reality of her world when she looks through the eyes of a poor embroiderer who comes to her door one time too many. Other characters, both European and Indian, remain in the dark as to their biases.

One qualm this reader has about the book stems from the period in which the stories were written. They were first published in the 1950’s, and this accounts for but does not ameliorate a certain preachy tone and something of a “noble savage” mindset. Keeping this in mind, these are vivid, deeply felt scenes of a turmoil which continues today. Rumer Godden’s prose is especially rich and substantial—she wrote nine of the stories—and ought to send the reader off in search of her acclaimed novels and memoirs.