Monday, May 25, 2009

If It Is Sweet--a personal note

Reading Mridula Koshy's stories for the first time, almost a year-and-a-half ago, fresh into the publishing job I left this January, I had two distinct thoughts. The first was that these were the Delhi stories I'd been looking for; the second was that if all I managed to do was publish another three books like this, I'd have justified my time in publishing.

If you live in Bombay and write, the city looms behind your work, inevitably and naturally. But Delhi seems to elude writers, especially those who work in English--the great Delhi novels I can think of were written by Krishna Sobti and Ahmed Ali, with a few exceptions. (I Allan Sealy and Karan Mahajan have both used Delhi as an interesting backdrop, but the author who's probably captured Delhi best was Vandana Singh, in an SF short story.) Most writers see Delhi through the lens of history--it's a wonderful place to set a certain kind of tourist historical novel--or through the lens of a camera--the picture postcard view.

Mridula's stories in the collection that became If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar) captured the many levels at which Delhi works, her curiosity and her open-mindedness as a writer allowing her to examine the lives of people too invisible, too ordinary to be considered worth writing about. Perhaps it's her background--she used to be a trade union organiser--that makes her such an acute observer, perhaps it's the many places that she travelled between as a young child that gave her an ability to imagine the lives of strangers in richness and detail.

A large girl who is simultaneously lover and liar, a teenager fruitlessly hawking discount coupons for covetable, unaffordable jeans, the koodawallah's intricate romance, a carpenter uncovering his Delhi world through the mysteries of plaster of Paris, a child of the footpath making an unexpected connection at the traffic lights, mothers, tourists, drifters--all of them captured in Mridula's compassionate but unflinching vision. The Good Mother, for instance, isn't about Delhi--it's about tragedy and the harsh, inescapable fact that life will continue to go on even after the worst you can imagine has happened. But here's a tiny aside that reveals a slice of Delhi, the architecture echoing the lives of the people:

She had not noticed from the outside, but the houses are built with no space between them, just the superfluity of two sets of walls in a tight kiss, so that they are suctioned, one to the other. But neither do the two balconies, nor do the houses themselves, bear any relationship of symmetry or accord any thought to each other.


This is what Rana Dasgupta had to say about the book:
In brooding, otherworldly prose, Mridula Koshy tells us the stories other writers overlook, or do not wish to tell: the household thoughts that must always remain silent, the disavowed dramas of the city, the heartbreaking proximity of opposite emotions.


There'll be other books from Mridula Koshy; she's here for the long haul, and I look forward to reading them. But I'll always have a soft spot for this collection of short stories, so intense, so rewarding, so revealing of the inner life of this city I've known all my life, loved and hated, and never seen captured quite like this before.
 
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