Book review: Not Only The Things That Have Happened

Sunday, 20 January 2013 - 10:17am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

In her first novel, Mridula Koshy writes about loss, longing and the desire of being loved and explores how the past redefines who we are.

Book: Not Only The Things That Have Happened
Author: Mridula Koshy
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 352
Price: Rs499

An aging Annakutty Verghese, wife of the crippled Thambi, is on her deathbed in a village in Kerala, but unwilling to die. She has only one pinprick of hope that makes her desperate to stay alive. Her thoughts linger over the born-out-of-wedlock child she gave up for adoption over 30 years ago. For her, he is The Lost Boy and she longs to see him before dying. Annakutty keeps telling her niece Nina, whom Annakutty has raised like a daughter, “if it is real, you can remember not only the things that have happened, but also the things that are going to happen”. In a story that spans a 36-hour period and travels between in Kerala and Midwestern United States, Mridula Koshy paints a complex web of memories, both real and imagined.

In these 36 hours, Koshy charts a journey for her characters who travel back and forth in time. Koshy starts off in the present, time travels to the past and then moves on to an imagined future. It could be confusing but Koshy does her bit to ensure a smooth reading.

Annakutty’s story makes up the first part of Not Only The Things That Have Happened. We meet her first as a 16-year-old in Cochin and her life proves to be full of adventures and heartbreak. She falls in love with a man from her stepmother’s village, is sent to a nunnery in Madras, has a child out of wedlock with a priest and is coerced into giving the toddler up for adoption. Finally, she marries Thambi, a one-legged man who is much older than her, brings up her niece (Nina) and tries to find the child she’d given up for adoption.

Her son, christened Asa Gardner by his adoptive parents, features in the second part of the novel. Asa’s life, sadly, is not as happy as his birth mother hoped it would be. Initially adopted by a German couple, he’s intentionally left behind at a railway station in Delhi by the husband. Little Madhu becomes friends with the other beggar children living on the platform and starts following them around till he is rescued by an “Office” (an adoption agency). Eventually he is adopted by a an American couple. While Annakutty has a phantom of a son to whom she clings, Asa has the task of trying to connect with his six-year-old daughter who lives with his estranged wife. As he does so, he finds himself grappling the memories of the life he once had with his many brothers at the railway station.

In a nutshell, Not Only... is a story about a woman who gives up her young child for adoption and then spends the rest of her life regretting that decision and living in the hope that he returns to her. Koshy uses this familiar story to explore the influence that Christianity has on people from rural Kerala to the deception and monetary muscle that is part and parcel of the adoption process in India. Asa’s life in America raises the question of whether adoption is necessarily the best option for children from less privileged backgrounds. His initial years are spent trying to fit in and “performing” for the streams of people who see him almost like an circus exhibit that exists solely to highlight the good that the Gardners did by taking him in. The illusion of their happy family disintegrates when the Gardeners’ daughter commits suicide. Asa leaves the house never to return, spending his time in parks and on streets, begging for food. When he meets LeAnn, Asa believes he has a shot at happiness and they get married. Unfortunately, she too leaves him, taking their daughter with her.

Not Only... weaves together stories of people involved in Annakutty’s life: her niece Nina; her half sister and Nina’s mother, Tessiebaby; Valli, a tribal woman Annakutty befriended when she was a new bride in a her husband’s village; and finally Gretchen Oster, the German woman who first adopted Asa. Among the men in the novel are the village priest Father Paul and Unnikrishnan, the barber, who has the image of Annakutty walking naked on a road burnt into his brain. The incident happened after Annakutty’s stepmother Saramma discovered the young Annakutty met a man after the household went to sleep, and so locked up all of Annakutty’s clothes. This only served to incense Annakutty, who decided to brazenly walk out of the house, naked, to prove her independence. For Unnikrishnan, however, there’s only one word that comes to mind when he remembers this incident: shame.

Koshy’s descriptions of village life in Kerala are brilliantly etched and perhaps she’s mined them from the memory of the two years she lived there as a child. From the way she writes about how young girls gossip — their chatter punctuated by gaping mouths and “Ay-yai-yyos” — Annakutty’s stepmother shaving off her hair to bring her in line and finally, walking out of the house naked, Koshy’s prose is evocative and richly-detailed. Rural Kerala’s obsession with religion, hypocritical at best, is laid bare in scenes like the one in which Catholics gather around Annakutty’s dead body primarily because they want the refreshments served that would be served after the prayers.

The weight of grief weighs heavily upon the novel. Each character bears this burden, dragging it along with their memories through the course of Not Only… The past is full of longing, riddled with the need to be loved and dreams of a better life. The only happy memories seem to Annakutty’s recollection of how she met her one-legged husband Thambi, on a bus from Thambaram to Pondicherry. It’s a touching love story in which the crippled Thambi agrees to take on Annakutty’s suffering and help her in fight to get her son back if she agrees to live with him. Thambi’s entry into her life is the only happiness Annakutty finds in her life.

Yet the sadness of the past and the shifting sands of time don’t make the world of Not Only… a difficult one to access. On the contrary, once you enter Annakutty’s memories, it is difficult to withdraw. Instead, you sink deeper and deeper into the lives and losses that Koshy portrays so beautifully.

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