EVENINGS AT MONGINI'S And Other Stories

By Russell Lucas

Summit. 262 pp. $18.95

"The Gazdars," writes Russell Lucas in one of his stories, "had money, being big in rawolfia serpentina and chinchona bark." I have no idea what "rawolfia serpentina" and "chinchona bark" are, and for all I know Lucas made them up. But somehow he makes them sound both exotic and down to earth, just the stuff that people in India might get rich from.

Virtually all 10 stories in "Evenings at Mongini's" are set on the subcontinent, which may be enough to make some readers shun them like pariahs. This would be too bad, for Lucas -- born and reared in Bombay, though now residing in London -- writes a sprightly, sensual prose and revels in decidedly improper sexual entanglements. For instance, in "An Afternoon's Pleasure," Miriam -- "as succulent as a laying hen" -- hires a gigolo named Raper George, whom she at first disdains as a greasy little man, until she finds that he can send her into "continuous orgasm for forty-five minutes." This, by the way, is only the midpoint on an unusual personal odyssey.

Several of these stories are set in the 1930s and '40s, which allows Lucas to satirize British sahibs and to play variations on some classic Somerset Maugham tales of East meeting West -- bored English wives surrendering to slender Pathans and that sort of thing. But Lucas rewrites these old standbys as comedies: The illicit affairs generally bring happiness rather than tragedy, with the dark-skinned natives reinvigorating the etiolated foreigners. Not that there isn't murder, madness and various kinds of desperation along the way, yet all these remain subordinate to a general, even obsessive lustiness and a tender what-fools-these-mortals-be humor.

Some of Lucas's light touch derives from his mixing of high and low styles. "The Massage Parlour" begins this way: "Chiao was beautiful. She looked as fragile as porcelain. But she had the steel for the tiring work expected from the girls of the Happy Times Massage Parlour. This was an establishment which, by and large, serviced the needs of seafarers but also welcomed other gentlemen who were hot for a really pleasurable time." Lucas is seldom quite so brusque in his transitions, but the last clause of that otherwise elegant passage deliberately tumbles the sentence into reality, like the soiled card for a sex show unexpectedly thrust into a tourist's manicured hand.

Lucas also excels at the one-paragraph portrait. An English matron, for example, "talked ... in her tweety little-girl voice, of her late husband, Major Kilroy Adcock, who not only had once strangled a fully grown Himalayan bear but had memorised the square root of every number up to one thousand." As if Major and Mrs. Adcock weren't treasure enough, two pages later Lucas relates the fantasies of the headmaster at a boy's school:

"He mentally despatched Seamus on a day-long boat trip with some local fishermen and danced Mrs. Caunce into his cool bedroom overlooking the harbour. He took her to bed, dreaming of titian hair spread out on a coverlet of blue Catalonian silk ... and her vibrant face regarding him with grateful acuity.

'Ah. Dr. Mascarenhas. What an absolute bounder you are.'

'Call me Boaz.'

'Ah. Ah.' "

Lovely stuff. Most of the time Lucas writes plainly, if cunningly, but he likes words and isn't afraid to drop in the odd one like "rufescent." This is, after all, an author who can imagine the Zoroastrian Physical Culture Health League. Who can describe a woman as possessing "the serenity of a beautiful giraffe." And who can create a woozy alcoholic husband who had programmed himself to look up every so often at his wife "and murmur with polite concern, 'I didn't quite catch what you said, my dear.' "

Each of the stories in "Evenings at Mongini's" is a kind of Indian fairy tale, some with fakirs and magic charms, the more realistic laced with Virgilian sadness over the transience of life and its pleasures, but all offering neatly planned surprises, small electric shocks of language, plot turn and whimsy. The best of them, "Keep Smiling," traces the life of a spendthrift, girl-crazy, yet courtly Indian millionaire, utterly out of step with the modern world, while the most moving and Chekhovian is the last, "Bismarck," the not quite sentimental tale of a poor half-caste watch-repairer who falls in love with a sickly, emaciated street girl. At Christmas he takes her to see his beautiful coldhearted sister, who has become a rich official's whore. Heidi is rude and haughty, coolly accepting their small gift, having nothing for them, though she finally gives them more than she knows.

" 'Didn't I tell you,' said Bismarck, 'that my sister was a queen?'

" 'I have never seen lips so wet and red,' whispered Tara in awe.

" 'It's a wonderful thing to see on Christmas eve,' reflected Bismarck, as they watched Heidi swing elegantly through the sunlight to her limousine."

A biographical note in "Evenings at Mongini's" says that Russell Lucas is in his fifties and that this is his first book. I hope that doesn't mean he is such a slow, careful writer that we will have to wait half a lifetime for his next collection of stories. That would really be intolerable.

The reviewer is a writer and editor for Book World.