Thursday, July 02, 2009

On Mridula Koshy's If It Is Sweet

In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, one of the founding stories of modern literature, we see the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect. “Companion”, one of the stories in Mridula Koshy’s debut collection If It Is Sweet, offers us a similarly strange prospect, although it is not announced as swiftly and dramatically as in Kafka’s story. Instead, we are made to wait. For a while we are led to believe that the efficient and attentive companion to the old widow in the story is like any other domestic servant. But we find out after a while that he is actually an extremely talented talking monkey.

The initial surprise and disbelief of this is quickly overwhelmed by the radiance of Koshy’s imagining. The monkey, we are told, was bought off the street by the widow (“Maji”) and rescued from a life of captivity, cheap stunts, and hunger. In return, he brings all his skills to bear on improving Maji’s stuttering life. The natural alliance of human and simian lives and needs imagined by Koshy (“His tendency to groom found great satisfaction in her tangled morning hair”) is very endearing. By the time the monkey takes Maji, at the close of the story, back to the old house in Bhutan where he used to live, and we see his tail curl “to lovingly lift the latch of the house gate”, we are totally won over. The companion echoes the tender love and fidelity of that most devoted of companions in our literature, Hanuman.

Indeed, Koshy’s stories are full of large and small acts of caring – of a sense of duty that does not go away even when the object of that duty is no longer present. In one of the best of these stories, “The Good Mother”, we see a woman returning to Delhi from Manchester after the death of her two young sons in a car accident. She carries with her their ashes, to be dispersed in holy waters, but finds herself unable to release them when the occasion arrives. Finally, in a little apartment in Delhi, the claustrophobia of which Koshy evokes with a set of precise details, she brings herself to let the remains go. “Little bits swirl back and stick to her lids and lips,” writes Koshy, leaving us to imagine the horror of swallowing a particle of a life birthed by the very body that now ingests it.

Koshy, who was born in Delhi, lived and worked in America for about two decades, and now lives in Delhi again, has said that she was “a trade unionist before she was a mother and a mother before she was a writer.” These anterior layers of her experience are given expression in the mingled toughness and tenderness of her stories. Many of them are about an underclass of workers – construction labourers, carpenters, garbage collectors, maids – living quietly in the interstices of a thriving South Delhi; one family’s slum home has tin walls “filched long ago from the construction of the Chirag Dilli flyover.” There are excellent close descriptions of the labour of workers, whose condition is sometimes intuited from the smallest details. The protagonist of “The Good Mother” hears the sounds of hammering next door and decides that the tools are either “made light, for smaller hands, or made cheaply, for poorer people.” Walking through a construction site, the boy protagonist of "P.O.P" sees a worker "reach the end of his plank-walk to throw the cement with a motion so precise he is convinced again that this work is easy because each of its parts are minute, and only the whole must hurt."

At the same time, these stories cumulatively offer a rich portrait of mothering: of the fulfilment of being a parent, but at the same time its many annoyances and curtailments. Indeed – and this is true to Indian realities – the task of motherhood in Koshy’s work often falls to people other than parents. Several children in these stories are stand-in mothers to their younger siblings, and devise games and consolations to make a bleak reality appear warmer and more exciting. Here is a description of food as seen from the perspective of extreme hunger in "When the Child Was A Child":
That year, Emma remembers, they ate vindaloo pork patted into flour: soft fat thick on stringy meat, and the rind of each piece that started out tough between her teeth crackling to release oil so rich she wanted nothing more than to live in her mouth. There was a dry preparation of beef, fried dark, to which slivers of coconut clung; and chicken in creamy gravy with bones good for crunching open and sucking the marrow from, till the sharp breaks in the crenulations within grated fine the surface of her greedy tongue.
In Koshy's stories, food and family are often conjoined; the same story has a Dickensian scene in which the long-absent father returns...
...from far away where he had been living in a place called a Correctional Facility, which [Emma] knew from the enemies at school was also the place called Jail. He came home that day with boxes of Twinkies and Dingdongs, and a lap into which he pulled the children's mother. The children, exultant and uncomfortable, ringed the tussling parents, and in the mirror Emma observed the great satisfaction of the whole.

Emma remembers it as the year they ate fish every night.
As these passages show, Koshy’s is a prose that does not surrender its shape or meanings easily. Sometimes her narration can seem as willfully dense and tangled as the forest to which Koshy's characters often retreat for a moment of peace or rest. But this is Koshy's method, her quiddity as a storyteller. If there is a criticism to be made of these stories, it is that they can be too one-paced: they sometimes lack that turn of speed, that change of register, that would balance out their heavy beauty, the careful accretion of details like a bird seen on a tree by a child, perched “not on a branch, but actually on a leaf”, or a character who vomits out "chunks of tomato and marvellously intact lengths of noodle." Even so this is absolutely rigorous and distinctive work, and there is a sound and a sense in these stories that make Indian fiction a bigger place.

[A shorter version of this essay first appeared in Mint]

1 comment:

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