7 February 2010

Textures of time: Book Review

If it is Sweet
By Mridula Koshy
Tranquebar Press, New Delhi, 2009, 283 pp., Rs 295

Mridula Koshy’s narrative style is not easy to enter into, because her stories don’t necessarily move forward. Like the characters whose internal lives she chooses to map, they move two steps ahead, then take a quick sidestep into an imagined parallel reality, only to loop back without warning and begin to retrace their journeys – sometimes returning to the same place several times before reluctantly, slowly, letting go. Memory, as you can imagine then, is crucial to Koshy’s characters. No-one lives entirely in the here-and-now. Adults remember themselves as children; children remember parents before they were old; migrants, both young and old, long for the places they have left behind. But this is no nostalgic book. The past here is not something soft and warm, in which one can seek refuge. If anything, the dark swirls of memory constantly threaten to rupture the skin of surface calm that people seek to lay over the present.

Even memories of a shared time can divide people. We remember things differently. Often because we experienced them differently – but sometimes simply because we want to. In ‘When the Child was a Child’, the grown-up Emma clings to her childhood memories of “the year they ate fish every night”, trotting out details of rice and fish curry and yogurt in the face of her mother’s insistence that “they were too poor to cook like that very often”. “Emma… won’t allow corrections. She murmurs her memories the better to savour them alone.”

In ‘Once in 1982’, memory is blinding, like the jasmine bush that the five-year-old Maya once conjured up as a “sun” for her elder brother. For the brother, the vividness of that remembered childhood comes interlaced with a bumbling realization of how the years that have passed have passed between them, reversing the hierarchy of elder and younger, leader and led. “He is surprised at his sister. When did she start thinking of him like this – as a problem for her to solve. He feels a faint sense of outrage. ‘I was with her till the end, Maya. That’s not living in the past. Daddy has not been here in five years. I was all she had. I was living with her here. Not in the past. Here.’ ” (All Maya says in response is ‘Grow up’.)

In ‘Jane Eyre’, too, disparate routes to the present drive a wedge between people who have shared a past. The woman who returns to India after years spent abroad is full of unvoiced resentment about the adjustments she has had to make to become the person she now is, wondering continuously if even today “there isn’t, herself still living, having continued with the life she imagines she would live – a girl, a bride, a woman, a wife, a daughter-in-law, a mother of neither winter nor summer, a mother of a pig-tailed, red-ribboned girl, or two, or three”. Grudgingly, she acknowledges that her “friends from the past” have also had to adapt to “lifestyles unlike anything she and they imagined in the pre-infotech era that was the landscape of their childhood.” But the resentment is quick to resurface: “they switched from one life to another as a group. In their possession is a collectively re-imagined and collectively re-endorsed life. They, she argues, have the comfort of having done it together. I was forced to go it alone.”

Koshy is adept at delineating the contours of female friendships: the swinging between immeasurable generosity and petty jealousy, the power wielded over one another’s lives by the single cutting remark, the back-handed compliment. We can only laugh and cry simultaneously at the petulance of the upper middle class Suroma (in ‘Stray Blades of Grass’) who revels in – but will not acknowledge her desire for – the company of the obliging Renu, the presswali’s daughter, or the less subtle machinations of the protagonist’s friend Chinky (in ‘Not Known’): “When Kalyani’s sister got married, Chinky said we have to wear saris to the wedding. I said, ‘All right, but I don’t have a good sari.’ She said, ‘No problem. You can borrow mine.’ Then she saw me wear it one day when we were just trying on clothes to see how we would look for the wedding. She realized how good I look and said, ‘You shouldn’t wear a black sari. You look exactly like a witch.’… After Chinky took the sari back, she said we can wear jeans for the wedding. I knew what she was doing but still I agreed… Then when I reached there she was wearing the same dark blue net sari I was going to wear. But I didn’t care.” She captures perfectly, too, the texture of time spent in girlish pursuits of the non-consuming variety. Story after story (‘The Large Girl’, ‘Intimations of a Greater Truth’) conjures up the dreamy, half-realized sense of eroticism so crucial to adolescent afternoons, where nothing really happens but everything seems strangely possible. That below-the-surfaceness seems part of the sexual frisson of a different time, a time irremediably distant from the bombardment by consumable, in-your-face sexiness that we live with now. But Koshy manages to make both seem believably contemporary, to make worlds co-exist.

And this, when she succeeds, would seem to be her greatest achievement. The piece that sets out to achieve this goal most consciously is ‘Jeans’, an ensemble of monologues or dialogues in the voices of different characters – a girl fretting because she’s left a pair of beloved jeans behind in an auto (“Those jeans made me look tall. The trick is you have to be willing to wear tight jeans. Tighter than tight. And low. That makes you tall, no matter how short you start out.”); a woman whose husband has got rid of her jeans because they reveal the contours of her body too much for (his) comfort (“You should see yourself from the back. Each of your behinds is separate and your underwear cuts each one into half again… Your behind jiggles in four different sections. Disgusting!”); a young man initiating a friend into the pleasures of the city (“You’ve seen the melons on the movie heroines… I got a big surprise for you in the city. The city sisters, you se, they wear these pants – jeans… You get to see a whole second set of melons.’) If the collection is taken as coming together to create a portrait of Delhi, then there are class juxtapositions aplenty: the obviously well-connected wealthy Delhi family of ‘Once in 1982’, its sprawling Tilak Road bungalow and overgrown garden sharply reminiscent of the musty melancholia of Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, is as far apart as possible, socially and spatially, from the overcrowded, stuffy, privacy-starved Ali Gaanv houses of ‘POP’, where the terrace is fought over as a place to sleep. Here one world seems not to intrude on the other. There are other stories where Koshy attempts to etch more intimate cross-class relationships, with varying degrees of success. The premise of a Panchsheel Enclave inhabited equally by the koodawalla and the elderly gentleman possessively watching his maid’s flirtations is an interesting one, but the voice of the old man never quite persuades us of the powerful emotion his words describe. On the other hand, in ‘The Large Girl’, a surefooted, moving account of the protagonist’s relationship with an old schoolmate called Janet, class is the placeholder for a lasting bitterness, a sense of disjuncture: “How can you understand me?” [says Janet] “You are the little Miss Richie Rich who ignored me all through school.”

Koshy’s language is fine-grained and draws its beauty from the unexpected juxtaposition of images: “Now her pregnant beauty startles him like the fish that rustle and slip past his shins in the flooded fields of paddy he bends over to seed”. Her ability to look at the world through the eyes of children is remarkable, whether it is in the accuracy of responses (“When Renu’s father accuses the malis of “sleeping the day away”, what we hear next is “Renu could not imagine anyone ever willingly sleeping during the day”) or the acuteness of sensations – smells and sounds and feelings – when one is younger. Sometimes, though, the preoccupation with detail becomes excessive, as in the case of ‘Same Day’, with its repetitive description of the internal life of the body/mind: “It’s as if he has been anxious about something, maybe her, maybe the questions of whether he would see her again. He isn’t sure what he’s been anxious about since he doesn’t actually remember feeling that when dissipated should allow him to feel such relief. But the relief is certain, even visceral, more than a mere lightening of his spirit, or the lifting of a burden. Yes, he feels as if he could float, as if a burden has been lifted. But even more strongly he feels light flooding recesses of darkness in him, recesses that he had not known were dark or he had even known were there. It seems to him that if he were to unbutton his shirt and peer down at his belly he would see through the skin to his entrails which, just at present, feel as if they are shivering themselves awake from a long sleep. And now he names the recesses one by one – Charu and ChukChuk, the old school building, the chink of yellow under the door somewhere (where?), the feel of the earth in the evening releasing stored heat, the feel of the earth against his cheek, the feel of the footpath releasing heat which isn’t the same thing as the feel of the earth…”. The tale, such as it is, is lost in the elliptical-ness of the telling. Koshy’s writing is barely invested in plot in any case, so if you’re looking for resolutions or pay-offs, you’re bound to be disappointed. These stories are really all about atmosphere. They do not so much begin and end as they carefully trace the contours of a chosen terrain. If you’re looking to linger – rather than reach anywhere in particular – then these are perfect reading.

Published in BIBLIO, VOL. XIV NOS. 11 & 12, NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2009

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