In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, one of the founding stories of modern literature, we see the travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect. Companion, one of the stories in Mridula Koshy’s debut collection If It Is Sweet, offers us a similarly strange prospect, although it is not announced as dramatically as in Kafka’s story. For a while we are led to believe that the efficient and attentive companion to the old widow in the story is like any other domestic servant. But we find out after a while that he is actually an extremely talented talking monkey.
Living history: Koshy evokes the beauty of south Delhi’s monuments such as Humayun’s tomb. Virendra Singh / Hindustan Times
The initial surprise and disbelief of this is quickly overwhelmed by the radiance of Koshy’s imagination. The monkey, we are told, was bought off the street by the widow (Maji) and rescued from a life of captivity, cheap stunts and hunger; in return, he brings all his skills to bear on improving Maji’s stuttering life. The alliance of human and simian lives and needs (“His tendency to groom found great satisfaction in her tangled morning hair”) is very endearing. By the time the monkey takes Maji, at the close of the story, back to the old house in Bhutan where he used to live, and we see his tail curl “to lovingly lift the latch of the house gate”, we are totally won over. The companion echoes the tender love and fidelity of that most devoted of companions in our literature, Hanuman.
Indeed, Koshy’s stories are full of big and small acts of caring—of a sense of duty that does not go away even when the object of that duty is no longer present. In one of the best of these stories, The Good Mother, we see a woman returning to Delhi from Manchester after the death of her two young sons in a car accident. She carries with her their ashes, to be dispersed in holy waters, but finds herself unable to release them when the time comes. Finally, in a little apartment in Delhi, the claustrophobia of which Koshy evokes with a set of precise details, she brings herself to let the remains go. “Little bits swirl back and stick to her lids and lips,” writes Koshy, leaving us to imagine the horror of swallowing a particle of a life that was birthed by that very body.
Koshy—who was born in Delhi, lived and worked in the US for about two decades, and now lives in Delhi again—says she was “a trade unionist before she was a mother and a mother before she was a writer”. These anterior layers of her experience are given expression in the mingled toughness and tenderness of her stories. Many of them are about an underclass of workers—construction labourers, carpenters, garbage collectors, maids—living quietly in the interstices of a thriving south Delhi; one family’s slum home has tin walls “filched long ago from the construction of the Chirag Dilli flyover”. There are excellent close descriptions of the labour of workers, whose condition is sometimes intuited from the smallest details, as when the protagonist of The Good Mother hears the sounds of hammering next door and decides that the tools are either “made light, for smaller hands, or made cheaply, for poorer people.”
At the same time, these stories cumulatively offer a rich portrait of mothering: of the fulfilment of being a parent, but also of its many annoyances and curtailments. Indeed—and this is true to Indian reality—the task of motherhood in Koshy’s work often falls to people other than parents. Several children in these stories are stand-in mothers to their younger siblings, and devise games and consolations to make a bleak reality appear warmer and more exciting.
Koshy’s is a prose that does not surrender its shape or meanings easily. The narration of these stories can seem as dense and tangled as the forest to which her characters often retreat for a moment of peace or rest. If there is a criticism to be made of them, it is that they can be too one-paced: They sometimes lack that rush of speed that would balance out their heavy beauty, the careful accretion of details, such as a bird seen on a tree by a child, perched “not on a branch, but actually on a leaf”. Even so, this is absolutely rigorous and distinctive work, and there is a sound and a sense in these stories that make Indian fiction a bigger place.
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