Mridula Koshy, If It Is Sweet, Tranquebar, Rs 295, paperback ISBN 978-93-80032-12-2
Reviews have been few and far between recently, because of work and health problems, but I absolutely had to review this book before Mridula Koshy visits Calcutta on 19 October, that’s next Monday. Another reson why the review was delayed is that I had to read the book twice, a task which I undertook with the greatest of pleasure. It is so rare to find a practitioner of the short story who is so accomplished and so unafraid.
This book is a delight to read. Koshy is a wonderful stylist; her style is exactly right for the short story: evocative, finished and allusive. In her plots, she is not afraid to be twisted, and she mixes the surreal and the gritty with aplomb. However, do not mistake these stories for that much maligned genre, magic realism. They lack the exhibitionism and self-conscious playing to the western galleries that has unfortunately marked many practitioners of the form. To get an idea of this, just contrast these stories with, say, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. Koshy traverses some of the same terrain: the lost NRI, the woman stuck in an unfulfilling relationship, the gaps and voids in communication between two souls. But Koshy does not have the self-conscious I’m-so-Indian grandstanding, and the middle class shying away from the nastier terrain on these maps.
Instead, she gives everything she’s got to the stories, letting the characters unfold like roses. Koshy seems at home with any kind of character, male or female, child or adult, animal or human, rich or poor; she covers many points in the possible spectrum of voices. Each of her characters has an impressively large internality out of which the reader is invited to look out upon their world and observe its strange wonders.
All of the stories are outstanding, but if I had to pick one as a must-read, it would be the second-last one, ‘Passage’. This tale of a woman coming to terms with the death of her sister is mindblowing. It conveys the character’s grief and the upheaval that the death causes in her mind and life without a shred of sentimentality, yet you come away from it shaken and flayed.
Another story that deserves mention is the extremely twisted ‘Companion’, or the darkly funny ‘Jeans’. These stories have Delhi in them, but not in a tour-guide kind of way. Delhi is the headspace where the characters’ dramas play out, and sometimes it gives their stories a nudge in the requisite direction. You can feel the gritty concrete and the straggly grass under your feet.
I would be very interested to see where Koshy takes her writing in future. We don’t see enough short story writers out there, and this is strange because one would think that the short story is the quintessential art form for today’s always-in-a-hurry society. The art of the short story is different from the novel, and in some ways harder. Every word counts, and style and plot are naked to the reader; you can walk around the tale like it is an exhibit in a show. Koshy’s seams stand up to scrutiny from every angle. Tranquebar are to be congratulated for bringing this book out, and Gynelle Alves has designed a cover worthy of the contents.