Janice Pariat: Let's not start with writing. Let's start with you. As a child. Did you like words? What were your secret games? Your imaginary friends?
Mridula Koshy: My childhood was interrupted again and again by the family’s need to move from one place to the next. In twelve years of schooling I changed more than twelve schools. Most of the changes were in the early years, and as a result, I have difficulty accessing my memories of myself in any sort of continuous way. I’ve been told by those friends I have hunted down that even in Class 2, I was a story-teller and entertainer. Certainly I read everything I could and regurgitated to whoever would listen. But what I remember and value remembering about myself, is that from the outset, the grief I felt each time I left a place was a starting point for self-exploration. Yes, it meant I was an awkward child given to constantly examining all the ways in which I fit and didn’t fit in every new situation I was landed in, but I was also a child who was forced again and again in that process to think about who I am.
The only secret game I can remember from childhood is ‘Amar Chitra Katha,’ which we played when I was ten or so. It consisted of tying a scarf around essentially nothing, to suggest there was in fact something there, and swanning about the room answering to the name Shakutntala. We kids, who played this game behind locked doors, were confused enough to think we were doing something wrong.
JP: This division of time (like cake), between cities, countries, continents – how does it work? How does it shape you?
MK: I’m not sure I understand this question, but yes, I was forced to think always of the simultaneity of time: when I am ‘here’ what about what is happening ‘there.’ Is my mother sleeping now, is my sister sneaking into my things? Later, as an adult, I thought of time as valuable for its equitable distribution, for our shared ownership of it. I don’t know if it’s quite the glue that holds us together. Perhaps it is more the sap that quickens in all of us.
JP: What are your most favourite things to do in the world? (We're still not talking about writing!)
MK: I love more than anything to walk, especially in the city, and especially at night. I love to feel my body grow lighter with each step so that, yes, eventually I am gliding if not outright floating. It is hard for me to know for certain if it is I who am in motion in these walks or if it is the city that is in motion while I am its stillest part, if I am entering the city or if the city is entering me.
And I am addicted to cooking blogs and love to bake cakes: olive oil cake laced with Grand Marnier, almond flour cake with strawberries and browned butter, pear and dark chocolate cake. The cakes are to impress my kids, even to woo them. My son Akshay who is the most ethical person I know, would cry out in grief when he was four and five, ‘You are bribing me.’
JP: Did you turn to writing? Or did it turn to you? (Now we are.)
MK: I turned to it and it was there, waiting for me.
JP: Where do all these stories come from? They are, most naturally, a part of you, yet how do you conjure a character? Are they patchworks? Or entirely, wholly new.
MK: My short stories are for the most part image driven. Something I see burns itself into me and I know I need a story that will allow me to burn it onto the page. I search within for anything and everything that will support the drive toward this image. In this sense, my stories are patchwork.
Someone once said ‘but your stories all end in sadness.’ The events in my stories are sometimes sad, but my attempt in every story is to end with a small ‘lift.’ That is, I want the story to propel the reader to where that original image took me, to the same momentary weightlessness I was first given to experience. I don’t think my stories end in sadness, they end in weightlessness.
JP: Do you write poetry? Why? (Or why not?)
MK: I don’t write poetry. I am unable to do so. I used to explain this as resulting from my tone-deafness. I used to think it was because I wasn’t quite clever enough, or worse because I didn’t have the discipline. This latter is possibly a little bit the truth. I tend to think now that my inability actually has to do with a resistance to the intense compression of the form.
JP: If you could write a letter to yourself at 15, what would you say? At 60, what would you say?
MK: I would tell my fifteen year old self that it absolutely gets better the longer you go at it. ‘It’ is life, of course. I would also tell her to dump the idea of learning high school French and opt instead for Spanish. To my sixty year old self, I’d say ‘Only ten more years to that cigarette you’ve promised yourself at seventy.’
JP: In "Not Only the Things That Have Happened" – there is a deep and profound stress on time. The novel is shaped by a particular past and future – was it a structure that came naturally as the story unfolded?
MK: Imagine driving a hundred miles down a narrow lane, in a bulbous car, and the arrival at the dead end – do I drive in reverse, do I do a five hundred point turn, instead? The difficult thing about writing a novel is how far along you might travel in the wrong direction, and what manoeuvrings might be necessary to back out of dead ends. So yes, the structure was always there but I certainly missed the road signs along the way, headed into many a dead end before I finally found my way. The act of writing is this business of pitching around in the dark and coming into the light.
JP: Four things (pieces of music or books or recipes) that are an intrinsic part of you...
MK: My mother’s red fish curry with its unorthodox addition of tomato sauce, poems my partner had written only for my eyes, the soundtrack of Pakeezah, especially the song ‘Chalte Chalte,’ and finally the family bible I read when I was nine and ten, and lost soon after.
JP: You recently learnt to ride a cycle – why do you love cycling?
MK: I have very few competencies in the world and a great many fears. It was good to get over this one fear and acquire this one competency. Swimming is next on the list. As an added bonus: ‘have bicycle, will travel.’ As an added-added bonus: will wear a short skirt and let the breeze play on my legs.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: a collection of short stories (Random House, India, October 2012). She lives between London and New Delhi/Shillong – depending on the weather – and spends her time wandering cities in search of stories.
Mridula Koshy is the author of Not Only the Things That Have Happened (Harper Collins India). Her short story collection, If It Is Sweet won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Award. Koshy lives sometimes in New Delhi and sometimes in Portland, Oregon, and all the time with her poet-schoolteacher partner and three exceptionally wonderful children.