Friday, December 21, 2012

A Grief History Of Time

This appeared in the latest edition of Mint Lounge


The intimacy and focus that a short story can offer is often at odds with the all-encompassing sweep of a novel, which is why there aren’t many writers who are accomplished in both forms.  Mridula Koshy’s If it is Sweet was a notable collection of short stories featuring migrants, domestic workers and other lost souls seeking consolation as and where they could find it. Here, a raw sensibility meshed with craft to create a variety of tones, making for a striking début. In her first novel, she plays to these very strengths; the question, however, is whether it all adds up to a unitary work of satisfying heft.

Not Only the Things that Have Happened contains many lives and worlds. It starts with an aged Annakutty on her deathbed in a village in Kerala, still consumed by memories and dreams of her out-of-wedlock son who was adopted forty years ago. (“I gave you up,” she says, “but I never gave up loving you”.)  The novel spirals outward to encompass others in Anakutty’s ambit, from her stepsister working as a nurse in Dubai to her teenage niece to her stepmother, to mention only a few. The immersion in the lives of the people of this region is almost Faulknerian in its intensity, along with the milieu against which they have come of age: the influence of Catholicism, the grip of caste, trade union and Left movements and the distance between the impoverished village and the bustling city.

The novel’s second section is set a world away, in a small town in the American Midwest, and contains the same emotional weight but not as much fine-grained social observation. Here, we learn of the life of the lost boy and of those in his ken, including a wife from whom he has separated and a six-year-old daughter. This conflicted individual obsesses over what he can recall of his tangled childhood history; he returns time and again to “the meaning of me”, and his rootlessness causes him to indulge in chameleon-like role-playing: "I don't know who I am. I try on stories, to see if I can fool people into believing I am somebody. But maybe also to fool me."

Koshy’s primary interest is in the impact of past bereavement on present-day lives and she follows her characters’ befuddled journeys and their real and imagined histories with an empathetic eye. These are her novel’s primary colours, which are underlaid by the chronology of how they came to their current states. The passage of time in this novel, in fact, is handled with some skill: all the surface action takes place during 36 hours, but inserted into this are slices of personal history that create a lattice-like whole.

Two distinct sections and geographies, with the narrative delving deep into non-sequential, individual stories: clearly, Koshy can’t be faulted on grounds of ambition. The disconnected nature of each chapter, however, can militate against the novel’s unity as well as emotional impact; there are times when the branches obscure the central trunk. It’s in this sense that one can see a short story writer trying to break free from the past and yet retain the elements that made the earlier work so strong.

That apart, the tone of grim realism makes Not Only the Things that Have Happened rather heavy going -- unrelieved by the glimmer of redemption at the very end. Every character struggles with an unsatisfactory present, and some have to undergo unpleasant material deprivation, too. “The past is grief buried deep in the earth,” Koshy writes; it’s buried deep in this novel, too.

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