Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love: Stories by Rumer and Jon Godden ~ 1989. This edition: Quill, William Morrow, 1989. Paperback. ISBN: 0-688-10965-9. 160 pages. Also published as Indian Dust in the U.K., Macmillan, 1989, with identical format and content.
My rating: I have somewhat mixed feelings about this collection of stories mostly by Rumer, because so many are already included in her 1957 collection, Mooltiki, and reading Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love felt very much like déjà vu all over again. But then I got to the very few (four out of fifteen) stories by Rumer’s sister Jon, and those were good enough to still my pangs of annoyance. To be fair, all of these short stories are actually very good, and if you haven’t read the rather obscure Mooltiki, you will be coming to them with fresh and appreciative eyes.
I think in this case I will award the collection as a whole a most respectable 8/10. (Along with the recycled stories, the two also-repeated poems made me knock it back a half point; Rumer Godden was a much more accomplished prose writer; her poems are just “not quite” for me; something just a bit jarring with the phrasing, I think.)
The intent of the collection is to celebrate the India that the Godden sisters knew and loved; they spent most of their childhood years in India, and significant amounts of their adult lives there as well. Rumer and Jon also collaborated on a beautifully written joint childhood memoir, Two Under the Indian Sun, which I read with pleasure some years ago.
Reader Alert! This is the same book as Indian Dust. Both were published in 1989, but Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love is the American title, from Macmillan, with Indian Dust the British title, from Macmillan. I had recently ordered Indian Dust, thinking it was another collection of stories, and was greatly disappointed to find it was identical to the one I already owned, under the Mercy, Pity title.
- Bengal River – by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki. First stanza is the best.
Nothing can mollify the sky, the river knows only its weight and solitude, and heat, sun-tempered cold, and emptiness and birds; a boat; trees; fine white sand, and deltas of cool mud; porpoises; crocodiles; and rafts of floating hyacinth; pools and water-whirls and, nurtured in blue mussel shells, the sunset river pearls… … … …
- Possession – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.
The rice field lay farthest from the village, nearest the road. On all sides the plain unrolled in the sun with a pattern of white clouds, white pampas grass in autumn and white paddy birds, and glimpses of sky-reflecting water from the jheels or shallow pools. The sky met the horizon evenly all the way round in the flatness of the plain, an immense weight of sky above the little field, but the old peasant Dhandu did not look at the sky, he looked at his field; he did not know that it was little; to him it was the whole world. He would take his small son Narayan by the wrist and walk with him and say, ‘This field belonged to my grandfather and your great-grandfather; to my father and your grandfather; it is mine, it will be yours.’
But life-plans may go horribly awry; Dhandu’s does not follow its anticipated path; in an ironic ending, which I somehow found reminiscent of W.W. Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, the field stays with Dhandu but is forever lost to his son.
- Rahmin – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.
An anecdote concerning a series of encounters with a minor craftsman, who proves to be representative of a vast class of Indian society balanced on the knife edge of survival.
- Monkey – by Jon Godden
Another anecdote, this time by Jon, telling of an encounter with a neighbour’s pet monkey, and the chain of events set off by its biting the author. Fascinating glimpse into the pet-owning culture of upper middle class Calcutta, where Jon was part of a mixed Anglo and Indian community.
- Sister Malone and the Obstinate Man – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.
Sister Malone, the nun in charge of a charity hospital in Calcutta, is unshaken by the horrible sufferings all around her and does great good with her nursing abilities, but her continual effort to share her religious faith with those she heals goes unheeded. One day Sister Malone meets a man who has truly put all of his trust in God, but she cannot reconcile this with her own conception of what faith should be.
- The Grey Budgerigar – by Jon Godden
Heart-rending short description of a valiant pet bird and its sad fate.
- Children of Aloysius – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection.
A modest seamstress is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make her fortune.
- The Oyster – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.
A Bhramini Hindu student, who has travelled abroad to study in England, visits Paris with a friend and is forced to examine the role of compromise in the formation of his own developing character.
- Kashmiri Winter – by Rumer Godden – a poem – from Mooltiki.
Big Sister, Hungry Sister and the Greedy Dwarf of Ice, these are forty days of winter, then twenty and then ten…
… … …
- The Wild Duck – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.
A young Kashmiri hunter, longing for winter to be over, thinks of his time the previous year among the high mountains hunting ibex.
- The Carpet – by Jon Godden
The long process of acquiring – or rather, being led into buying by a master salesman – a beautiful Persian carpet. Beautifully observed; gently humorous.
- Red Doe – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.
A vignette of a young nomad riding up the mountain to fetch his unseen new wife. Sensitive and poignant.
- The Little Black Ram – by Rumer Godden – from Mooltiki.
An orphan boy,
… a young thief, a bully, noisy, quarrelsome and turbulent, against everyone with everyone against him…
finds his place in the world through his care of a black ram lamb.
- Miss Passano – by Jon Godden
Miss Passano is disgusted by her fellow humans, and meditates upon a world without them, where only she would remain, in service to the animals she so greatly loves.
- Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – by Rumer Godden – new to this collection
Ganesh Dey attempts to write on these concepts – Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love – for his doctoral thesis. A gently ironical and emotionally powerful story, possibly the best of the collection in its summation of the contradictions of human nature and how we actually treat each other versus how we view our relationships and interactions.