“If It Is Sweet” – Was it?

After I finished reading Mridula Koshy’s debut collection of short stories, I pondered about the title. What had made her choose it? The title of this book comes from the last part of the last sentence of the second story in the collection – “I wondered what they were eating, and if it was sweet.” At least that’s what I presumed.  There are no other clues. As far as titles go, this one left a lot unsaid.  

So what drew me in? This was after all a brand new author. I have become somewhat wary of  new authors writing in English on the Indian block. What if I didn’t like her writing after all? How would I handle it? It’s a different thing altogether to pour vitriol on a writer you have never met – it is never personal, it’s only about the book.  To add to my consternation, I had genuinely liked the author when I got a chance to speak with her at her reading in Chennai.  All these thoughts ran through my mind, before I began to read, even though I had already read some of Mridula Koshy’s stories online.

To be honest, by the time the book came out, I was already familiar with Mridula Koshy’s name.  I loved the  few stories by her that I had read so far.  Here was a writer, I felt who could create a noise in her reader’s head without being noisy. There was also a surprising quality in her writing.  I was naturally eager to lay my hands on “If It Is Sweet,” her very first book. Still, that cautious voice in my head said, one or two swallows do not make a summer; there’s too much buzz happening all around, for all you know you may end up being disappointed. I decided to heed the voice in my head. And, thus began my passage through the pages of “If It Is Sweet,” with caution and wariness.

The first story in the book, “The Good Mother” was also the first story of hers that I had read. Not once, but twice. I did not ignore it when I opened the book, but read through it, quickly. As one would when crossing a familiar-ish path, with quickened pace because there is a destination and  a purpose at the end of it, but not sprinting either,  for the journey through that path is a pleasurable one. 

The second story was POP. I was already curious about it because she (Mridula) had introduced it to us during the Chennai launch of her book. I remembered her saying, just before she read an excerpt, that they – the real life people who inspired the story pronounced POP (Plaster of Paris, though at first I thought she meant Point of Purchase!) like one word, not spelling out the abbreviation and not like an acronym either; in other words, they said PEEYOPEE, rolling the letters into one word and not “pop.” This is a small detail, one that many of us would have overlooked, but for Mridula Koshy this pronunciation quirk became the focal point of a bitter- tender short story that lingered long after it was read; something like the after notes of  sweet masala paan in my mouth.

The third story “Jeans” had me in a tizzy! Literally! I ran to check my derriere in jeans after reading  this passage in the story: ” you should see yourself from the back.  Each of your behinds is separate and your underwear cuts each one into half again. See  – like this orange – you’re full of sections. Your behind jiggles in four different sections.”  But seriously, this one with its deliberately jerky flow and disparate range of characters was an interesting and intimate viewpoint held together at the crotch of a pair of jeans.

The fourth story “The Large Girl” is another tender story of doomed love, and its last lines  – ” I will begin soon to live all the days ahead of me. In the afternoons, I will think: do you miss me? Do you miss me? A thousand and one chances will come and go in this small city, in this small world. I will never see you again” – pealed again and again with quiet sorrow long past reading.

“Companion”, the fifth story is a little more than a fable. It is also a parable, an allegory. Everybody loves  a story that is slipstream or magic realism, and I am no different. This one ends with a chill down one’s spine and makes you take another look  at the story just read. You wonder what exactly has been lurking behind the story all along; certainly not a harmless monkey’s tail.

Many of Mridula Koshy’s stories demand a second and sometimes third look. Simple ordinary occurences, situations, characters and scenes seem to have another facet to them, one you discover after you have already moved on to the next part of the story or finished reading it altogether. This is a disconcerting tendency. Her readers have to be engaged all the time, even though she has made no apparent demands on them. But her readers want to be engaged.  You cannot dismiss her stories with a “loved them!” or a “Congrats. Good Read.” Mridula Koshy’s stories have a habit of working on the reader long after they are read.

“Today is the Day,” the sixth story is another tender and sad story. It is probably one of the stories that got her labeled by some journalist as a “proletariat writer” whatever that means!  I read a few more stories in her book that dealt with the lower rungs of our multi-layered society – “Romancing the Koodawalla,”  “Not Known,”  “Stray Blades of Grass” and “Same Day.” And this is what came across to me – that Mridula Koshy is not out to spread messages about child labour or the dirty underbelly of shining India; that these are people she has come across, people from many and diverse backgrounds and classes; that these stories are the stories she has seen in their faces, heard in their voices. There are no judgements passed, no agendas presented. Hers is a very humane eye and her writing style has a child’s refreshing candour about it. As a writer she is only concerned with getting her stories across to her reader clearly.  In order to do this she lets her language temper the flow of her narratives, finally culminating in the visually arresting last lines that are ever so often like poetry. Take these lines for example, taken from the story “Same Day” – “It’s a long wait for Charu. When she comes, she is trailing a string of buoyant hearts.” – simple, straight forward words, but what a picture they throw up in our minds! 

There are  stories about other people in India and specifically New Delhi which serves as the backdrop for a majority of the stories … As well as stories about expat Indians and Sri Lankans in the USA, a country she has lived for long years – “When the Child was a Child,” “3-2-1, First Time” and then there is “Passage”  a story of loss and mourning straddling two continents. Actually the themes of loss and sorrow permeate most of the stories; one could say that this is the thread that binds the stories to the volume, and it reminds me of lines read long ago from Shelley’s “To a Skylark” – Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. Then suddenly the title of this collection draws meaning, whether intended or not.

I am seriously tempted to write a few lines on each and every one of the seventeen stories in “If It Is Sweet.”  But that would be giving too much away. This is after all a book of short stories. Speaking of which, I don’t know why there is this seeming  (to me at least) taking up of cudgels for the short story form, with publishers saying it is unsellable and writers and reading groups and magazines “trying to revive the form!” I really don’t understand how or when the interest in short stories waned. The short story is alive and well; this narrative form is literally kicking up a storm with readers; it never went out of fashion and never will!

For as long as I can remember, I have always tested new ground through short story anthologies and collections.  The best way to know a new author is to read his or her short fiction. And as far as I know, I am certainly not alone.

Short stories are a sweet deal really. When you want a compact reading experience or don’t know the author but your interest is piqued, only a book of short stories can offer that smorgasbord of  literary experience, that feast of discovery and delight, some savoured for their piquancy, some crunched between the molars, some  bitten in chunks and chewed, some first quaffed down and then allowed to linger at the back of your throat. A skilled writer provides most, if not all of these  reading experiences in a single collection. And that is probably the reason, I’d say, shaking my head vigorously, that Mridula Koshy’s book “If It Is Sweet”  wasn’t sweet for me. It was a lot more. It was a smorgasbord!

As I said earlier, I had read a couple of the stories on the internet and became enamoured of Mridula’s unique voice – so had she come out with a novel first I would have read that too. It so happens that Tranquebar Press put together seventeen of her short stories. I enjoyed every one of them; some more and some less, but all of them were well above what I call the water mark of readability! 

I collect books and have a special fondness for short story anthologies, like many genuine readers out there. And like them, I too have this habit of reading passages, chapters and stories again and again. I know that I will read these stories again sometime in the future. There are some authors one can return to. Mridula Koshy is one of them.

:) Happy Reading! :)

Enchanted

I am not much for author reads and book launches and stuff like that – blasphemous words since I am a writer myself, and hey, I am aware I am axing my own legs! Be that as it may, a couple of years ago I let go of Kiran Desai’s presence at Landmark simply because I did not see why I had to go meet her even though I loved both her books! The only famous author whose book reading I attended was Amitav Ghosh – another one of my favourite writers – but that was because a friend needed company.  The smaller (compared to the above two mega stars) book readings/launches that I have attended were to show love and support for my writer/poet friends and acquaintances. And that is something I will always do. So…

When I received an email from Mridula Koshy about her book readings in Chennai and Bangalore, I told myself now here is a writer who takes her profession seriously. I like and respect professionalism in people from the creative disciplines. I shot off an enthusiastic mail and then uploaded her book reading announcement on my blog. What I did not know then was Mridula Koshy was not just going about her writerly business in a professional manner, she was being downright sincere.

I was one of the early birds at the Taj Connemara today. Very early in fact because the members of Madras Book Club the co -hosts of Mridula’s book reading (the other two being Prakriti Foundation and her publisher Westland/Tranquebar Press)  always like to enjoy their tiffin of snacks and Kaapi before settling down to attend to the author, the reading gets delayed by a good forty five minutes as a rule.  Luckily for me I did not have to sit by myself for long. Mridula was early too and I walked up to introduce myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing.  It is always awkward walking up to a published writer; you don’t want to come across as a sycophant or someone who gushes over anyone remotely connected to the media. But I think I did gush at the end!

I might as well have walked up to meet not a school mate, but someone who shared the same institute with me, there was that feeling of instant connect. I also  felt instantly protective. She was poised, polite and perfect in every way, so why did I feel protective? I haven’t quite figured that out. All I know is that I also liked her instantly.  And then she told me  that  writing to  people who blogged was something she had done on her own and not at the publisher’s behest, because she wanted to get across to real people who read books and would therefore write real reviews.  I realized then that she was more than professional, she was genuinely sincere.

As the evening progressed and she went and sat upon the spotlit seats, flanked by K. Srilata the poet and writer and Ranvir Shah founder of Prakriti Foundation,  reading an excerpt from her book in her clear voice, responding to Srilata’s questions and discussions, and then taking questions from the audience, I had many glimpses of her genuineness. Her frank, free of any guile responses charmed me. At one point, a member of the audience asked her about the “semiotics” in her work which he preceded with a two minute talk on what I assumed was a pseudo-intellectual take on her writing, and she simply pushed the mike towards Srilata, who teaches Creative Writing at IIT Madras,  saying she could answer that. Now most writers are subjected to this kind of literary scrutiny by one or two members of the audience. (I saw it happening to Amitav Ghosh and have heard of similar stories about other writers). Frankly, I think that these people are aspiring writers or worse still, literature students who think that outside of them nobody is truly qualified to analyse this whole literary thingumajig! Since I have a literature background I should know! ;) Anyway, to come to the point, Mridula, did reply to the  literary smartaleck,  having composed herself in the thirty seconds that Srilata took to respond. What charmed me about her was the absolute simplicity of her answer and the gracious way she handled  a person who was being self important.

Straight forward, genuine and gracious, that is how Mridula Koshy the writer came across to me. But there is more; thoughout the evening, begining with her brief interaction with me, right through her reading and question answer session, I got a sense that here was a very intelligent person with an acute sense of observation, and a mind that often detached itself to look over everything, including the self.

Much of what writers are made of seeps into their books, their words, their make believe worlds. I have not yet read the whole book “If It Is Sweet.” Even so, I am certain that I will read stories that have picked into the nooks and crannies of ordinary lives, sifted through the contents and spread them out tarot card fashion between the soft bound covers of her book. And yes, I certainly look forward to this writer’s successful journey into the literary landscape.

PS: A couple of  things – sadly my camera battery ditched and I couldn’t take photos! I know I haven’t quoted her at all, but these are my impressions and there were enough journos there taking notes etc. so they will surely quote and misquote Mridula. Oh, and I gushed before I left, (unlike me but couldn’t help it!) ” Stay this way, don’t change!” What I meant really was, “this almost childlike and incisive truthfulness is precious and rare, this is your voice, hold on to it!”

Now Chennai & Bangalore get to Find Out “If It Is Sweet!”

I read a couple of her short stories on the internet and really liked them. Here’s an example, which won first prize in the 2008 India Currents Short Story Competition. Now Mridula Koshy has a whole bunch of short stories neatly packed into a book brought out by Tranquebar Press. Her book has been launched in Delhi and  Mumbai.  It is being launched in Chennai and Bangalore next week. So all of you who are located here and near abouts, please come! :) 

The Chennai Launch:-

Madras Book Club in association with Westland/Tranquebar Press and Prakriti Foundation cordially invite you to celebrate the publication of

IF IT IS SWEET 

-  A collection of short stories by Mridula Koshy

On tuesday 11th August 2009 at 6.30 pm at Conemara Hotel, Chennai. K. Srilata, Associate Professor IIt Madras, will be in discussion with the author.

 The Bangalore Launch:-

Toto Funds the Arts in assocoiation with Tranquebar Press is pleased to invite you to the launch of

If It Is Sweet by Mridula Koshy

Eminent author KR Usha will be in conversation with the author.

Date and Time: 13th August 2009, 6.30 pm onwards

Venue: Crossword Bookstore, ACR Towers, 32, Residency Road (G.F), Bangalore

Praise for If It Is Sweet 

  ‘… in language that’s affecting, tender … Mridula Koshy’s writing is deeply attentive and fearless, the work of an extraordinary Indian moralist with an unmistakable gift.’ – Jeet Thayil  

Mridula Koshy’s voice is fresh and new, animated by a love of language and people that makes these stories remarkably strange and yet disconcertingly familiar.” – Sidharth Deb. 

“If It Is Sweet is a book of savage beautiful writing, whose empathy and curiosity flood over the usual barricades of imagination — and remind us indeed, what real writing is.” – Rana Dasgupta

Mridula Koshy was born and raised in Delhi till she migrated to the US. There she worked as a union and community organiser. She currently lives in Delhi with her partner and children. Her short stories have appeared in publications in India and abroad. If It Is Sweet is Mridula’s first book and has won rave reviews and a very wide readership.

Usha K R has been writing fiction in English for over two decades. She began with short fiction, which was published in various magazines and newspapers such as Debonair, Femina, Savvy, New Quest and Deccan Herald. Her novels include: Sojourn (1998); The Chosen (2003); and A Girl and a River (2007), which won the Vodafone Crossword Award for Fiction, 2007. Her next novel is forthcoming from Penguin India in 2010.