Literary Review

Allure of the unexceptional

Mridula Koshy's Bicycle Dreaming  

When you begin reading Mridula Koshy’s new novel, Bicycle Dreaming, you may think you know exactly what kind of book you’re getting into. A story about a 13-year-old girl, Noor, who longs for a green bicycle; who wants to become India’s first kabaadiwali; who lives with her family in a one-roomed home in Chirag Dilli. She has one best friend, one crush, one dream. So far, so linear. For all the book’s simplicity though, it constantly shrugs away from any expectation you may have of it. Not in an exceptional or dramatic manner but delicately, with balance and a dexterous lightness of touch. If you can imagine a novel with toes, then think of this one in ballet shoes, standing en pointe from start to finish.

Koshy tells me that the genesis for the book was manifold. There was the fact that at 40 she hadn’t learned to ride a bicycle. “To move my body at a speed that was not given to it seemed to me to be the freedom to be more than my body.” There was also P. Sainath’s essay on women and bicycles in Everyone Loves a Good Drought and Kaveri Gill’s Of Poverty and Plastic. But mainly, it began because she was reading from picture books to a group of 13-year-olds in a weekly after-school club. It was the idea of narrating a story that could be their life and recognisable to them that got her started. “I wanted to test the theory that I could tell a not-simple story simply.”

The novel takes us through a tumultuous year in the life of Noor where she falls out with her best friend Haseena and then falls back in, where she experiences that teenaged “pleasure-pain” feeling for a boy called Ajith. Thirteen. “That time,” Koshy tells me, “when we live so much in the present, when our past is only a smidgen more time than our present, when we have accumulated so little by way of memory and days simply follow days.”

But there are larger stories at work here — landfills of garbage and the tiny hands that pick razors from sludge, the selling of ancestral farm lands to make way for towers of glass, children who imagine different futures from their parents’. Noor’s brother Talib is one of these children who dreams of a shinier future. He uses transparent red-coloured toothpaste and works in a call centre. He does not want to be a kabaadiwala like his father. The gap between his reality and his dreams is a territory of longing that Koshy explores with incredibly sensitivity. She excels in describing smallness — the small light given off by a kerosene flame, a father who knows he must always pay for his smallness but who will not be small in front of his son, the restlessness a son might feel in his father’s too-small house. When father speaks to son, it is “nonsense spoken by a person living in a small world, one at odds with a much larger one.”

There is also the issue of gender, the way mothers and fathers privilege and enable their sons and daughters differently. In Bicycle Dreaming, there is a father who loves his daughter, and a mother who prefers her son to the daughter. The problem with novels, Koshy tells me, is that too often they claim “exceptionalism” for their characters in an attempt to reconcile their awareness of the vast swathes of people and history that exist outside them.

“The character who defies traditional gender roles and expectations can do so in such a novel only because she is exceptionally intelligent or brave or sensitive or beautiful. This works in as far as the character inhabits a central place in literature — the middle or upper class character’s exceptionalism is simply an added feather in the cap of their centrality to literature. But when characters who inhabit marginal places in society are made central in literature on the basis of their being exceptional, it serves in the end to underline the notion of literature as exclusive.”

Koshy subverts this by making Noor not in the least exceptional. Neither is her mother or father exceptional. “They are, however, very particular, I hope,” she says. “Their story is theirs and not only the story of a gendered tradition. It was a bit tricky writing an unexceptional poor person into a novel. At times I felt the pull of all those other works in which a poor person is deserving of their place in literature by some trick of cleverness or sensitivity that sets them apart from their class. I hope I resisted the pull.”

Bicycle Dreaming is a comprehensive, tautly structured novel. At times it is claustrophobic, dwelling as it does in so many small rooms and garbage-clogged naalas. But Koshy always has an eye on the horizon, guiding us beyond the maidan and kooradan to a place where a girl could climb on a bicycle and ride away, feel the wheels turning below her, spinning and spinning into a waiting world.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 10:39:01 PM |

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