“After I lost my son, I put it into my memory that he would return. If it is real, you can remember not only the things that have happened, but also the things that are going to happen.”
Not Only The Things That Have Happened (HarperCollins, 2012), Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, opens with these lines by Annakutty Verghese, a mother who has relinquished her son. These intriguing words are but a deceptive indication of the richly textured and complex narrative that follows: about a mother who is trying not to forget her son and Asa, the son trying to remember his mother. Told in two parts — set in Kerala and the US — the narrative is much more sweeping in the way things are gently said through multiple voices and then, not said.
In prose that is layered and complex, characteristic of Koshy, whose writing I discovered in her first book, If It Is Sweet , a collection of short stories, the novel draws you in the way an epic does. Koshy, also the grand niece of well-known Malayalam poet Sister Mary Benigna, lives in Delhi and Portland, Oregon, in the US.
How and when did you have the idea to write this novel?
I was writing short fiction, perhaps starting in 2005. Someone approached me and asked me about a particular story in my first collection and asked me if I couldn’t turn that into a novel because she felt it really belonged as a novel. I disagreed but that was the first time I thought that perhaps I should try my hand... as I thought about it, I was very clear I had a story in mind. I always had this story in mind and had never tried to have it in short story form because the story of a woman — relinquishing her child and her struggle to not forget him and the story of a boy when he is a man struggling to remember her and essentially who he used to be — I didn’t think belonged in short fiction, particularly because I had many ambitions for the piece. Part of my ambition was to do less of what I do in my short fiction which is to invite the reader’s participation in. I don’t think novels invite reader participations in the same way short fiction does.
Between your short story collection, If It Is Sweet, and Not Only the Things That Have Happened, what has happened? How have you evolved?
I think novel writing is technically a different line of work. I know that early on as I was writing the novel I felt my brain was getting reorganised by the form I was engaged in. When you sleep in a small bed you have a certain kind of sleep and when you sleep in a larger bed you have a different kind of sleep. You can expand and spread yourself to your own detriment actually and it can be difficult to invite someone to bed with you because you’re going to kick them all night long. As I started expanding and my brain was literally rewiring itself, I was very aware of it. Much later, some three years into it, when I was trying to write short fiction again, it was hugely difficult. So that was a confirmation of how much I had changed... But I’m currently working on a collection of stories.
Which bed do you enjoy sleeping in? The big one or the small one?
Oh the small one. It’s funny because the small one has more room for others because the large one makes you selfish and makes you want to be there by yourself and roll from one end to the other and it’s very dirty actually ( laughs ).
Has writing this novel changed you in anyway?
I think I have acquired a massive amount of knowledge about the world because I had to do a lot of research to write this novel — about adoption. So I have not changed as a person except that I have accumulated all this knowledge.
How much of your own sense of Kerala has gone into the novel?
The one area where I did not necessarily have to do a tonne of research was Kerala… Being part of the Malayalee community in Delhi, I’ve absorbed a feeling for being a Malayalee. My engagement with Kerala in the book was about trying to discipline myself to understand that feeling in words. Then I had to sit and pore through my own memories, pore through the feelings of being in rooms with people and sitting and talking and how were they different from other rooms and other people. In the rooms where Malayalees sit and talk we like to keep our conversation in the air and sometimes it can be extremely witty but mostly it’s kind of low-key witty, which is very Malayalee, I think.
How important is a geographical space to you?
I think it gets back to the question of confidence to write. I did not write for 20 years. I wrote when I was 15 and everybody said ‘Oh! you are your (grand) aunt, it visits every other generation this thing called writing’. And I found that very frightening. I didn’t write after that until I was 35 or so. The other reason I didn’t write was this lack of confidence. Geographic space is important in the same way that research is because when I’m in a space I feel much more confident about my ability to write about that space. When I had the opportunities living in Delhi to come to Kerala, I took it. I was diligently, painstakingly trying to re-engage my old knowledge of Kerala.
It made it technically difficult to write the novel because I wanted to be true to it not only for the sake of satisfying the Malayalee reader, but I wanted to be true to it for the sake of informing the rest of the world.
Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote this novel?
Actually, a wider audience than I had envisioned for my short stories. Because my short stories were my first work they were really quite the engagement with myself, so I was my primary audience. With my novel I had a much broader audience in mind. Because (of) this business of remembering and forgetting, which is very important to me in the novel... I wanted to ask a more important question. How will she live without meeting her son? How will he live without finding the answer because it is unanswered. And we all live with things that are unanswered. So I felt it was really relevant to just about anybody in the world.
In the titles of your work, there’s always something indicative of a certain absence.
Yes, I want to be fair to the reader. I want the reader to know they’re going to read something difficult. That the difficulty of the title should be an indication that they’re going to encounter a difficult read and that there’s no closure in my writing. Maybe someday but not now.
Why did you decide to have multiple voices narrating the story rather than just Asa?
Part One has them because of this feeling I have in Kerala of crowdedness, of proximity of people being shoulder to shoulder. This kind of extreme crowdedness coupled with great curiosity and hunger to know — we want to be both expansive and insular in our outlook. So it’s a great contradiction. I wanted to express that structurally in the book. The process of having my mind changed is a process I want to encode into the book and have people’s minds changed.
Your language in the book is layered and complex. Has reading poetry influenced your prose?
Honestly, I don’t know. I took a writing workshop from a well-known Bengali writer and she asked ‘who reads poetry?’. I felt so ashamed because at that point I did not read any. I read poetry now, I read it in a studied way, to become a better writer. I read it because it is in poetry that I see how our minds are changed as we read and as we write. Knowing that from poetry, I try to engage with that knowing in prose. I’m very interested how poetry allows us a glimpse; between these containers called words there is space. These containers are leaking meaning into that space.
I know in my work I struggled with the difference between the words, faith and hope. I wanted my book to be about faith, not about hope. Faith is a word that, unlike hope, is not helpless. As a writer, my engagement with writing is more about faith. I’m not writing because I hope to win the lottery, but because I’m keeping the faith with myself, with the readers, with my writing.
Mridula Koshy is a participant at The Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai.