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Not Only The Things That Have Happened

Mridula Koshy

HarperCollins India

Pages: 352 Rs. 499

Memory and its makeshift, fragmented mechanisms

Mridula Koshy’s meticulously crafted sentences and her profoundly humane riffs on motherhood & identity make her novel a thoroughly entertaining read, writes Janice Pariat.

Janice Pariat  2nd Feb 2013

Mridula Koshy

ome books are sculptural in nature. Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is as smooth and polished as a pebble found on that part of remote English coastline, a natural Fabergé egg. Henry Miller's work often reminds me of Duchamp's Fountain – wildly irreverent and exuberantly shocking. Reading Mridula Koshy's debut novel Not Only the Things That Have Happened is akin to opening a diptych, a painting hinged in the middle, linking two images, telling a story that works its way across the canvas. Yet more so a diptych of the type referred to by early Christian literature – the official lists of the living and the departed commemorated by the local church, where the living would be inscribed on one wing, and the departed on the other. Koshy's novel resounds with the names of the living and the dead, often repeated, whispered, remembered and called to in the dark, each with their own weight and inscription. The hinge of the halves of the novel – the first set in Kerala and the second in "a small city in the Midwest, United States" – is the link between mother and child, fragile yet ineffably resilient.

The story opens with the death of Annakutty Verghese, regretful unto her last breath about a son, born out of wedlock, that she gave up years ago for adoption. This decision, made in fear and desperation, haunts her all her life, and the theme of absence echoes strongly through the book. Absent parents and siblings, sons and daughters, and also the emptiness that many characters feel within themselves. They are occupied with imagined pasts and futures, of how things should have, could have been and perhaps will be. Annakutty's world is animated by Koshy's polished poetic descriptions; her prose unfurls in Woolfian stream of consciousness, punctuated by powerful, engulfing emotion. For instance, when Saramma leaves Tessiebaby and Annakutty to beg a livelihood, she rests by a road: "Her hands seek the ground, stroking the sun-warmed skin on stones...She dreams in the heat of the noon-day sun that she has given birth to these stones. She dreams, knowing her dream is just that – a dream. Her children are not stones. Yet under her hands, the stones refuse to be soothed and clamour with the mouths of hungry children... 'Oh,' she says aloud at the end of brief weeping, 'to have given birth to stones instead.'" The "Rome-returned" priest of Annakutty's Christian community is a familiar character in his humourous incompetence, her neighbours are cleverly outlined in all their affective kindness and hypocritical failings. Yet at the centre of the narrative is Tessiebaby and her recollections of childhood with her "sister-mother" Annakutty, her daughter, Nina Scaria, who she leaves behind in her sister's care while she and her husband earn a living in the Gulf, Annakutty, the strong, wilful and damaged protagonist, and, like a gaping black hole, The Lost Boy, who was given away when he was four to Mrs Oster, a childless German lady.

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Set within thirty-six hours, Kosky’s story flits between the past and present, eloquently filling the pages with lifetimes lived and lost.

n the second half, we move continents away to Asa, Annakutty's son, now about forty and adrift in the disarray of his life. While Annakutty relinquishes the story of her future, Asa is left with the absence of a past. The narrative embraces a broad sweep of themes – immigration, citizenship and identity, adoption and belonging – questions that cannot be answered by official documents and the colour of a passport. Asa is brought up by an evangelical American couple, his journey from India funded by their church who raised money to bring him across to, what they genuinely believed was, a better, brighter future. Yet Asa stumbles through life, often homeless, impoverished and derelict, his ties to his adoptive parents and siblings all but lost. We see him struggling to establish a bond with his step-daughter Noel, unable to provide her with a story of who she is because he is never sure about the fabric of himself. The only person he once connected with is Becky, his sister, an intriguing, insightful character, who, at twenty-one, threw herself off the freeway overpass.

Set within thirty-six hours, Kosky's story flits between the past and present, eloquently filling the pages with lifetimes lived and lost. While the sudden shifts in time and narrative voice might make for fragmented reading, the book is held together by two overarching movements – that of Annakutty's future and Asa's past eventually melding. The author is adept at creating moments of pure poignancy even if we miss a touch of playfulness and laughter. As with her collection of short stories, If It Is Sweet, Koshy is a deft literary seamstress, intricately weaving a tapestry of voices and offering us a rich, layered glimpse into the workings of memory, community and family.

 
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