Readers will have to piece together the story and move on, writes Shashi Baliga.
The book begins with a death. And the pall of gloom never lifts after that; it hangs grim and heavy over the novel as an unrelenting sense of despair seeps through its pages. Despite the author’s remarkable story-telling skills and striking craft, it can be tough going, this debut novel.
A somewhat illogical complaint, perhaps, about a book that grapples with loss, abandonment and separation, with a motherhood and childhood that never were. But there it is, irrational yet real, compounded by the elliptical narrative that spans continents, generations and sub-plots and reveals its secrets in trickles. A glimpse here, an unveiling there, a clue, a teaser… readers have to piece together the story and the pain as they go along.
It is a technique that is well executed and terribly effective: you are constantly wondering why, what, when.
An additional layer of free-flowing time makes it denser as the novel swings across lands, events and generations within the 36-hour framework that it is set in. It is all skillfully done but at a price. The payoff, the jigsaw puzzle that finally comes together, is not all that you hoped it would be.
Our expectations remain unfulfilled like those of the dying woman, Annakutty, who has grieved much of her life for her son — the son born out of wedlock whom she could not feed and gave away to be adopted by strangers. Spinning out of her sorrow are a clutch of interlinked stories. In Kerala, where the first part of the novel is set, are her half-sister Tessie and her daughter Nina who is left behind with Annakutty while her mother earns a living in Dubai. There are Annakutty’s father, Jose, and his second wife, Saramma, who drives her step-daughter to a dangerous rebellion. There is a brief interlude in which her son Madhu is handed over to his new parents.
And then, the novel swings to the US, where Madhu is now Asa Gardner, tormented and deeply damaged, caught in the tangles of an unhappy marriage and the growing distance between him and his young daughter. Meanwhile, his adoptive parents and siblings, the Gardners, must deal with the aftermath of their decision. And there is an intriguing Juice Uncle, the elusive link who haunts Asa as he digs for his roots in an alien land.
In all, it is a deeply unhappy collection of parents and children, of families and individuals searching desperately for joys that never materialise. Interwoven are strands of the trade union movement, the caste system, Catholicism and faith, and the emotionally complicated business of adoption. Koshy takes a cold-eyed look at both, the motives and the effects of adoption; there are no happy endings or middles for that matter, in this regard. Which is also true of the novel itself, of course, as indicated earlier.
Koshy paints a grim view of a woman’s life; her women are born strong, then forced to become stronger. Scorned, humiliated or abandoned, they take centre-stage in this novel, in a sisterhood of sorrow. Koshy writes of Asa and his “…pet indulgence — the sullied self”; it’s a predilection she is given to as well.
When her women talk it is in an elegant, often poetic but spare, bitter-edged tone that speaks of a simmering forbearance. It is a quality that is admirable and commendable but alas, not always attractive — in women or men.
Annakutty tells her niece that “…it is important to remember not only the things that have happened… it is important to remember what will happen.” An elegant thought to which one could add in this context: It is also important to remember what could have happened.
Not Only The Things That Have Happened, Mridula Koshy, Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, Rs.499.