Mridula Koshy recently published her first collection of short stories, If It Is Sweet (Tranquebar Press, 2009). Previously she has been many things, including a painter, a waitress who set a tablecloth on fire and was then made to polish silverware, a professional advocate of multiculturalism, and a backstage dresser at fashion shows.
Her stories have been published in Existere, Wasafiri, The Dalhousie Review, Tehelka and other venues. She lives in New Delhi with her partner and three children.
Aditi Machado: Tell us about If It Is Sweet. Where does the title come from?
MK: I didn’t want a title that describes or makes a statement so much as one that wonders. I prefer the fiction of the fragment to the fiction of the whole. That said, I didn’t have a formula to finding a title. It just struck me that the book was loaded with images of sweetness and that the characters encountering these images — for example Suraj in ‘Today is the Day’, who falls asleep and dreams the ants carrying specks of white are building an underground house of sugar-don’t draw conclusions from these encounters so much as wonder about their import.
AM: In a recent interview, Kazuo Ishiguro said that most collections of short stories are “basically a rag bag of stories they’ve had sitting around for the last 30 years.” Your stories seem, however, to fall into an overarching theme of family and love. Would you agree with this? How did you choose the stories, make them fit, as it were?
MK: My stories are centrally about my interest in class and its function in diminishing people’s lives. But since this is a work of literature and not a political tract (I’ve written those in the past) it seeks itself in settings that are not obvious — so the family, not the political party or the trade union. I am also interested in seeing who is human in our society and what the answer to that question might say about our society. Literature is one more way to examine ourselves. It is as good an analytic tool as our national stats — our GDP for example.
We too often we shy away from introspection in our literature because we see it as playing out in a world arena. So we have this defensiveness about how we are perceived elsewhere and allow a resultant self-imposed myopia. A clouded understanding of ourselves can only further feed the insecurity that promote our ‘ India shining’ grandstanding. No matter the effort put into seeing ourselves as ‘shining’ we know that we are simultaneously averting our eyes from other truths. It takes confidence to be self critical and only then is it possible to see the extent to which Delhi is a world city.
The stories were pulled together by Nilanjana Roy. Prita Maitra too worked on them. I credit Nilanjana in particular with seeing the coherence that could be achieved in their ordering. For example her choice of ‘Good Mother’ as the first story in the collection is very crucial to the reading of the collection.
AM: Tell us about your story ‘The Large Girl’ — a story I haven’t managed to read yet, but which has caught the attention of many reviewers because of its sexual theme. How did the story come to be? And are we, as Indians, prone to picking out sexually-themed stories because of our collective discomfort with the subject?
MK: I should think discomfort would imply a shying away or a prurience. ‘The Large Girl’ does neither. Ultimately it’s not about sexuality. The fact the two women fall for each other is more an opportunity to explore transgression as an idea. The protagonist in the story is a upper middle class woman who finds herself unexpectedly in love outside her marriage and must struggle to understand what the truth in her life is. I am always interested in the reading this story gets because it is inevitably seen as a lesbian story. Very few see that the bigger transgression in the story is the married woman’s transgression of class. She is not only in love outside gender norms and outside the institution of marriage but also outside her class. She is a class traitor. Class haunts her even when in love so that she looks at her lover as ‘vulgar.’
AM: Which side would you take in the “write what you know” versus “write from your imagination” debate?
MK: Oh both sides if I want to say that we have to do both. Who would ever restrict themselves to writing from just one, or advocate writing from just one or the other?
Neither side if I want to get cranky and admit to how tired this argument is. Tired in that it never sheds any further light on the question. Perhaps because this is not quite as dark a question as it purports to be.
One piece of hard won knowledge I would pass on to anyone who might be struggling with this question in their writing is to beware of whole scale lifting of bits of autobiography. It rarely works because ones life cannot resonate in the same way for others. When I lift an incident from my life I divorce it of the emotions of my life, employing it in the service of other emotions intrinsic to the story I am writing. And vice versa.
AM: Recently, Indian writers have had extraordinary international success with their novels. In your opinion, how do we fare when it comes to short stories, a genre considered more or less a stepchild in the literary field?
MK: I didn’t know about this stepchild syndrome till I attempted to get published. As a reader I was voracious in my consumption of short stories. I wonder if this is one of those conventional bits of wisdom that gets touted without basis in reality. Or maybe it’s just a part of the bigger is better marketing culture we have become part of.
I must say I love the short story. Released to the reader it accretes meaning to itself, providing within its form the silences and space for intervention a novel just does not afford a reader. My stories are an invitation to collusion and should get smarter the more they are read. The novel is a brick to the head and more often than not results in reader stupefaction
AM: Today workshopping has become an important way for writers to hone their craft as well as to network with other writers. Do you think this workshopping scene is beneficial to writers, and if so, is it only for the amateur?
MK: Whether it was Tolstoy who submitted his manuscript to his wife for major overhaul or the Bloomsbury set who critiqued one another, we have been work shopping since ‘time immemorial.’ It’s absurd to think of writing as anything but a collective process. One step in the collective process is the first readers of a work, who have the responsibility to tell the writer if what they have been subjected to is hooey. I am eternally grateful to my writers group, Riyaz without whom I would have more hooey on hand than I care to think.
AM: What engages you, excites you, moves you as a creative person?
MK: My children. They illuminate my thinking, frustrate me, escape me, bind me.
I like to walk. I walk late at night with my partner, after putting the kids to bed. We walk for hours from our neighbourhood in South Delhi to all points. Some day we will walk to Paris . I can’t imagine how else I might get there
AM: To go back to this feeling that the short story is a stepchild genre (while the novel is, if I may say so, the apple of everyone’s eye), is If It Is Sweet a rung up the ladder to grander things? Can we expect a novel in the future or more short stories? Alternatively, do these hierarchies really exist?
MK: I would like to write more short stories. I have put a year and a half into a novel. So I will first finish the novel. And before I plunge back into short stories I would like to try my hand at children’s literature. The essay I think is the most superior form of writing. Why do I think this? Because it eludes me. And I want to condemn myself for it. The poem is for superior beings. I don’t even try. Sigh.
Praise for If It Is Sweet
“In these stories, families are seen in their whole corrosive element, and the poor and disenfranchised are returned to history — in language that’s affecting, tender, unexpected, like translations from a tongue infinitely superior to our own. Mridula Koshy’s writing is deeply attentive and fearless, the work of an extraordinary Indian moralist with an unmistakable gift.” — Jeet Thayil
“In brooding, otherworldly prose, Mridula Koshy tells us the stories other writers overlook, or do not wish to tell: the household thoughts that must always remain silent, the disavowed dramas of the city, the heartbreaking proximity of opposite emotions. If It Is Sweet is a book of savage, beautiful writing, whose empathy and curiosity flood over the usual barricades of the imagination — and remind us, indeed,what real writing is.” — Rana Dasgupta
“Mridula Koshy’s voice is fresh and new, animated by a love of language and people that makes these stories remarkably strange and yet disconcertingly familiar.” — Siddharth Deb
If It Is Sweet is available in all Indian bookstores. Price: Rs 295