You really have to work hard to stay in the game when reading Mridula Koshy's collection of short stories If it is Sweet (Westland Limited, 2009).
Writing in tightly wound, layered prose, Mridula often starts her story like a photograph that is blurred or out of focus. Often events happen or characters make themselves known without a clear context or identity. Yet no matter how eagerly fascinated you are, you have to be patient and wait for the photograph to reveal its secrets. Several times I had to go back and reread portions to reframe the story. All through the collection, you sense you are in the presence of a noteworthy talent.
Since her book made me sad, happy, melancholy, tickled, surprised, pensive and impressed, I decided to take advantage of Mridula's hugely personable nature and ask her a bunch of questions that reflected my experience with her book.
AspisDrift.com: You know your writing is so dense and coiled. Perfect for Twitter! How about I give you one tweet (140 characters or less) to tell us what ‘If it is sweet’ is all about
Mridula: Here are two,
Self-doubt and introspection, a nuanced inner life, the stuff of our humanity is not the purview of any one class.
Sometimes all we share is the same day, the same city, and the question we ask– if it is sweet? This, by the way, is enough to sustain the hope that we are one species.
AspisDrift.com: You are one of the most grounded authors of major talent I know - not that I know many. But don’t you possess any authorly quirks or weirdness?
Mridula: I blush. My quirks and weirdness though are very little authorly. After all said quirks predate recent ‘authorly’ events.
Quirk number 1: I don’t sleep. Vampire-like, except for the bloodshed. And so un-authorly. I have never written a word in all my insomniac hours. This is a barrier I must cross. There await novels on the other side. At least, I tell myself this with great relish as I wander the night, living-room furniture making acquaintance with my knees. Why the relish? I like muttering to myself, I coulda been a contenda. It makes me fall over laughing. I doubt life gets better than this.
Quirk number 2: I am sleepy all day.
Quirk number 3: My memory is shot. I can barely sustain a thought.
Quirk number 4: I hear things. Sometimes whole symphonies. I’m waiting to see if this will progress to seeing things, maybe whole symphony orchestras. I worry the living room will be too small to house so grand a vision. How will the violinists saw at their violins in such a narrow space?
Quirk number 5: I am pretty sure things are getting better all the time. This applies to my life and yours, and my bruised knees and shot memory, and the general state of everything, and that includes climate change, or at least the capacity of ordinary people to see through gyps like carbon exchange--rather than straight forward lowered consumption.
The only thing I am pessimistic about is the prospect of ever updating my blog. Yes, I have one, with about four entries, a pretense of having something additional to say.
AspisDrift.com: Someone once told me that getting a book published is like having a baby. You’ve done both – what do you think?
Mridula: Well, yes I’ve written a book. Yes, I have three kids. Are they similar efforts? Oh, I don’t know. The book and the kids, both keep me up at night.
But I love my three. And love is not how I would describe the emotions surrounding my book. Writing is a compulsion, possibly a sick, maybe an egotistical, and definitely an environmentally unfriendly one. I could describe my kids as my three great novels. But confining myself to describing them in terms of writing would rob from the richness of all the other ways of describing what they are to me. And as for turning it around and describing my book as my baby—I would never, not with a gun to my head. It would be a lie to compare the intellectual effort that goes into writing the one with the effort of raising the other.
It’s a case of a bird can fly but a fly can’t bird. Old joke, all three of my kids repeated ad nauseam around the time they were six and discovered the pleasures of punning.
AspisDrift.com: Let’s talk a bit about your writing: did you write a lot growing up?
Mridula: No, never. Okay, once when I was fifteen. Actually for like a whole year when I was fifteen. It’s such a deluded age to be. I hope my kids will all jump straight from fourteen to sixteen.
That way I won’t have to buy a saxophone for the one I know for sure is going to decide he is saxophonist on his fifteenth birthday.
AspisDrift.com: You have a very distinctive style: I really liked the way you establish the characters in your book while initially obfuscating all kinds of details about them. I want to know more about how and why you do it.
Mridula: Possibly because my characters are shy like I am. They hide a lot. Possibly because I like surprises and I assume the reader will too. Definitely because people are elusive, never staying still, ever-changing, and hard to figure out. I want my characters to behave like people.
This style of mine extends to my sentences I think, as well as to the drawing of my characters. As a reader I like re-reading a sentence. Not just the masterfully written ones, the savouring of which is an act of homage. But also the fractured ones the re-reading of which allows me to revisit the place in the sentence where I can fall right through language. There are so many places one can visit that cannot be held in words.
AspisDrift.com: A lot of writers go back through their old stuff and either chuckle if it’s never been published or shake their head if it has. What do you do?
Mridula: I stand by my work the way I stand by my decision to date that boy, and sleep with him, for years even, before moving on. That is to say, I have enormous affection for my book, knowing all its flaws as intimately as if it were an old lover. And as with an old lover I no longer desire in my bed, so too with my book.
AspisDrift.com: What’s your fuel of choice when working?
Mridula: Kaapi. Chood kaapi. Kattan kaapi. Stumptown if someone wants to bring me a present from the US.
AspisDrift.com: I read somewhere about all the different jobs you’ve done – what’s the definitive list of jobs in your varied career?
Mridula: tinker tailor soldier spy
painter mother now a fly
Union forever or die -
trying that is.
AspisDrift.com: If I was a millionaire I would option your story ‘Romancing the Koodawala’. Would you part with it for me? Would the parting be accompanied by any conditions?
Mridula: You can have any story of mine. No conditions. I don’t place conditions on how any of my stories are read.
AspisDrift.com: What kind of a movie do you think we could make with it?
- A um, ‘full on’ entertainer starring Shahrukh Khan
- A tale of middle class quirkana produced by Anurag Kashyap
- A pensive examination of the power struggle in relationships directed by Nandita Das
- A searing expose of the kooda industry conceived by Madhur Bhandarkar
Mridula: Hey! How’d you know I’d say yes?
All of the above, especially Shahrukh Khan; with Nandita only if we are confident that she will confine herself to directing; she is too distractingly beautiful to ever play anyone but herself in a film.
AspisDrift.com: In ‘Companion’ you describe a relationship between an aging woman and a very articulate monkey. I enjoyed the story for what it was – but really what larger metaphor did I miss in all of it?
Mridula: “A life of love between human and monkey is not easy.”
AspisDrift.com: Final question which is mandatory on the Drift: can you fold a fitted bed sheet properly?
Mridula: Yes. I was 32 and 708 days old and mother a few times over, and in possession of too many fitted sheets still being pissed on nightly, and had yet to fold one properly –i.e. down the middle, tuck the two corners of one half into the two corners of the other, turning the ‘c’ of elastic into a smiley face, allowing a softened rectangle sans corners to emerge, and keep folding as with the tamer un-fitted sheet till you have the desired dimensions for your linen closet—when my father-in-law’s mother’s sister, Aunt Rita, she of mid-western thoroughness in housekeeping, decided some edification was in order. And now I have edified you.
In a bonus round I now offer you this bit of edification learned at Martha Stewart’s knees.
Fold your fitted sheet, matching flat sheet and all but one of the pillowcases that is of a set with the sheets, and slide the lot, stacked together, into the left over pillow case. It you have the least bit of Martha Stewart in you, the pillow case will be exactly one-half filled. You fold down the other half to make a tidy package. In a pinch you can just scrunch in your fitted, flat and pillow cases into the pillow case doubling as a container and twist tie the top off and throw the whole thing into the closet. All set if the kid pees in the middle of the night. No fumbling in the dark. Daylight will not reveal the horror of a bed clothed in uncoordinated sheets. I mean if you’re going to take the trouble to buy sheet sets…