book review: not only the things that have happened

“If it is real, you can remember not only the things that have happened, but also the things that are going to happen.”  —Annakutty Verghese

Harper Collins (India, 2012)

Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened, is not a tale for the faint-hearted. It is a story that explores the impact of adoption, oppression, loss and identity. Koshy’s prose and storytelling is hauntingly beautiful and speaks directly to the heart. It is not a quick read, but one that invokes thought, and as such, is an important and compelling work.

At the center of the story is Annakutty Verghese, an aged, dying woman who desperately clings to life as thoughts of the son she relinquished 30 years ago linger within her memory. Annakutty was coerced into giving up her beloved son and regrets this decision the rest of her life. She constantly relives her brief time with him by telling stories to her niece, Nina. Annakutty’s greatest hope is that her Lost Boy, Madhu, will return to her, a hope that never diminishes even until her death.

Divided into two halves, the story takes place in Kerala, India and in the Midwestern U.S. and spans a period of 36-hours. The story of Annakutty is featured in the first half and that of Annakutty’s son, renamed Asa Gardner by his adoptive parents, in the second. We transition back and forth between the present and the past as the memories of various characters whose lives intersect are recollected. This can be a bit confusing, yet it is through this interweaving of past and present that Koshy so masterfully creates a multi-layered story of memories, loss and longing.

In Part 1, we travel back to Annakutty’s life as an adolescent. The sixteen-year old Annakutty falls in love with a young man from her stepmother’s village. Her family, particularly her stepmother, disapproves and Annakutty is sent away to a convent, but not without first suffering much degradation and scorn. At the convent, she has a child out of wedlock with a priest, which brings more shame upon the young Annakutty. Eventually, she is convinced to give up her son when he is four years old. She later takes in her niece, Nina, and even marries, which brings a certain happiness back into Annakutty’s life, though she never gives up hope of finding her Madhu.

In Part 2, we travel a world away to meet Asa Gardner, formerly Madhu, who is now a grown man. We learn that Asa’s life has been characterized by instability. After his relinquishment to a German couple visiting India, he becomes lost at the train station where he and his new family are to depart. We are led to believe, however, that this was not an accident. The young Asa soon joins a group of homeless boys, his “brothers,” who live on the railroad platform until he is rescued by agency workers. He is eventually adopted by an American couple. Asa’s struggles continue even after his adoption, and he has great difficulty assimilating to his new life. After a devastating family tragedy, Asa leaves home for good only to return to what is familiar- living on the streets and begging. Time passes and Asa marries, but becomes estranged from his wife and has a disconnected relationship with their young daughter. At the root of Asa’s turmoil is the lack of any tangible history, in essence, a lack of true identity. With only fragmented memories of his past, Asa wanders like a lost soul, searching for missing pieces and reinventing stories to fill in the gaps.

On a much deeper level, the story of Annakutty and Asa speaks to a larger issue, the social institution of adoption, and begs the question, is adoption really the best option for children from disadvantaged backgrounds? I have conflicted feelings on this issue. The point of contention for me begins with the separation of a mother and her child due to coercion, or because an unwed mother feels that she has no other options. Furthermore, that such exorbitant fees are required to adopt a child from another country is difficult for me to grasp. I cannot undo my own past and recognize that I had privileges growing up that I would not have had otherwise. On the flip side, I will never know my birth parents, nor ever feel fully integrated into my culture of origin. It is an emotional injury that rears its ugly head now and again. Although adopted children flourish in adoptive homes, the disparity between losses and gains is traumatic. Often the only picture one gets of adoption is a romanticized one. Some adoptees are Ok with this disconnect. For me, it is not that black and white.

In the end, my heart broke for Annakutty and Asa. They both lived on the hope that one day they would reconnect, and there is something to be said of Annakutty’s unwavering hope that her son would return, though this never occurs. I could relate to Asa in many way- his losses and struggle to put a narrative to his unknown past. An element of grief seeps heavily into much of the story, as most of the characters experience a great loss. I didn’t mind the sadness, quite the opposite. There was an underlying rawness that pulled me deeper into the story and gave it a true sense of realism. I encourage you to read Not Only the Things That Have Happened. It is a powerful read and one that will leave a lasting impression.

Not Only the Things That Have Happened may be purchased on Amazon.com.

Mridula Koshy is an Indian writer and lives in New Delhi, India and Portland, Oregon with her poet-school teacher partner and three children. She is also an adoptive mother. Please visit her website at http://mridulakoshy.blogspot.com/.

Koshy’s 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, an Indian literary award.

Next post, an interview with Mridula Koshy! 

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