Mridula Koshy tells SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY about life before and after “If It Was Sweet”, her debut novel which has just bagged the Shakti Bhatt Memorial First Book Prize

A fternoon hour. Tap, tap of her shoe heels and the door of the DDA flat cracks open and there she is. Tall, dusky, striking eyes, attractive smile, extremely well-preserved for a 40-year-old mother of three…Mridula Koshy, you note, is all of it. Mridula ushers me in, her stylish spiralled hair jiggling to the bounce of her feet.

I am to initiate a conversation with this Delhiite, a promising author, whose debut book “If It was Sweet” is the winner of this year's Shakti Bhatt Memorial First Book Prize. A clutch of 17 stories constitute “If It was Sweet”, published this past May by Tranquebar Press. Marginal community — life that more often fails to break into a book leaf, particularly pre-Aravind Adiga, forms the spine of her yarns. Delhi is the canvas with a western city or two hanging in a bubble in some pages. Her actors are, among others, a koodawallah, a servant girl, a married woman finding love in a lesbian relationship, yet another picking a lover much younger to her by the Ganga....

Time to cut to the chase and we settle down on a bench at a public park next to her South Delhi flat. With a soothing winter sun working on my back, I listen to Mridula recounting how it all began. Tranquebar editor Nilanjana Roy heard her reading out one of her short stories at a literary event in Delhi. “She asked me if I have any more of them.” Though the stories were not written to form a manuscript, “the 25 stories that I shared with Nilanjana did hold together.” Despite varying scenarios and settings, all of them concerned with “the question of what holds people together and what pulls them apart.”

Mridula took roughly two years to carve them out and got the satisfaction of writing them by getting some published. “Eight stories found homes here and abroad,” she adds.

Rooted to Delhi

Delhi being the city of her birth and early childhood, she is not surprised that it has found its way into her tales. “Though my siblings could get over the city, I somehow couldn't.” If the city is the base of some of her stories, class is the plinth of almost all. Class has always concerned her, she underlines. “My mother loved to share a story about me from when I was three or four. We had a maid named Shanta and apparently one day I asked my mother whether Shanta's children would grow up to be Shantas,” she recalls. The same question she now explores in her book — if fate had something to do with class. “If Shanta is a species unto herself then her children will necessarily grow into the same species — and is that species human, if yes, then what of me and mine?”

As a mother, she says, “I now get to hear such searching questions from my children. All kids ask such questions to figure out the world.” However much we try to explain things to children, “they still ask, but why?”

While living in the U.S. — for about two decades — she continued to get her ‘but why' moment. Because racism laces almost every aspect of American life, she states. When she joined high school there, she was sent for a bridge course in English. “But all my life I have spoken English. No amount of pleading helped. And one day I heard a teacher say, look how fast she is picking up English.” She continues, “When I wanted to take up science during my senior class, the counsellor told me I am not getting it because science in a developed country is different from that of a developing country.”

An adult Mridula became a community organiser. She mobilised company employees, mostly of Asian origin, to seek better working conditions. She met her partner at a workers' union act, with whom she is settled now in Delhi for the last five years. Racism also seems the reason for relocating to Delhi. “I didn't want my children to grow up there.”

She also did a host of sundry jobs there — a backstage dresser at fashion shows, house painter, receptionist at a law firm, polished silverware and manned a KFC counter. With a laugh she recounts how in one job, she burnt a tablecloth, learnt how to run a cash register in one and got fired from another for forwarding wrong calls to the bosses.

Even as we natter, fellow writer Sarnath Banerjee — out for a jog at the park — stops by to congratulate her for the award. Mridula later states, “The literary fraternity here is very helpful. It is like a common movement…it is interesting to be a part of this…..”

Mridula's next is a novel. “Not because everybody is writing one but because I want to try the genre.” She has finished writing it in South Korea during a fellowship recently.

Our conversation ends with Mridula talking about the toughest part of being a writer. “I can give speeches at rallies because I then talk about others. Being a writer, you have to talk about yourself and that's tough.” She then adds laughingly, “At least you didn't call me ma'am!”