- No Presents Please, by Jayant Kaikini. Scribe. $27.99.
Jayant Kaikini speaks several languages including English, but prefers to write in Kannada, a Dravidian language spoken predominantly in the South Indian state of Karnataka.
No Presents Please, his delightful collection of 16 short stories written between 1986 and 2006, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2018, the first and thus far, the only work in translation to win the prestigious award. The sympathetic 2016 English translation by Tejaswini Niranjana is perfect for a monolingual reader. Her Translator's Note explains her difficulty in retaining the flavour of the hybrid Hindi-Urdu-Dakhini cultural vernacular of Bombay and knowing how much to translate into English. She uses parallel translations, either adjacent or somewhere nearby.
Why would a Bangalore writer weave a gossamer web of tales about Mumbai? And gossamer as a description? In a huge and chaotic city, home to millions of very poor people whose daily existence is hardscrabble, a word so delicate might seem inapt. Though Mumbai is high on the list of the world's richest cities, 20 per cent of the population of 20 million live below the poverty line, 55 per cent of them living in what most would term slums. The rich find no place in Kaikini's stories of ordinary people, told unsentimentally, in a quiet, gentle, tender voice. His are, in exposing the hard truths of society, perhaps successors to Saadat Hasan Manto's masterpieces of the 1930s and 40s.
Kaikini, born in 1974, arrived in Mumbai with a master's degree in biochemistry and worked for many years as a chemist. Countless nights must have been spent roaming the city which he clearly loves; watching, listening, absorbing the atmosphere - in well-known locations like Flora Fountain, Gateway, Khala Ghoda and Colaba, but also in the intimacy of tiny rooms in decrepit tenement buildings. His acute, imaginative observations as an outsider illuminate seemingly dull, downtrodden lives with fantastic flair.
Kaikini, a poet, playwright and essayist, is also a song-writer for Kannada films, credited with elevating the genre through beautiful imagery and classical touch. Several stories mention famous Bollywood songs and two, "Interval" and "Opera House" have cinema settings. "Opera House" is particularly touching as the building closes and Indranil who works as an usher/cleaner at night and sleeps there, loses his home. The recently renovated Royal Opera House, a splendid Victorian edifice, has reopened, though surely not offering sanctuary to people like Indranil. Another Bollywood reference is in "Toofan Mail", where the famous stunt artiste, a "glass-break expert", is about to perform a stunt which will doubtless leave him hospitalised, if not dead. We are left breathless with either anxiety or the desire for a happy ending. Kaikini is the master of cliff-hangers, nearly all his stories have puzzling conclusions.
His past experience as a television show host is used in "Tick Tick Friend". A television studio is located in the basement of a hospital and schoolgirl quiz contestant, Madhubani, meets a patient who coaches her, mimicking the tick-tick-tick sound of the count-down clock. Whether the studio existed or not, the Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital is now frequented by stars, including recently the famous Bollywood Bachchan family for successful coronavirus treatment. Amitabh Bachchan, Indian's film mega-star, is mentioned in "Water". Strangers who met on a plane are in a taxi trapped by floodwaters. Suddenly they hear a weird voice - that of a man pushing the bicycle he has ridden 1000 km, from the holy confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers at Allahabad. Hearing that "his hero's health is not good" he vowed to bring him Ganga water, believed to cure all ailments.
In "Dagadu Parab's Wedding Horse" it's the horse with a past career in circus and film. He bolts from the wedding procession as it passes the landmark statue of Shivaji, warrior-hero and founder of the Maratha Empire. Somehow the terrified bridegroom clings to his steed in a wild ride, metamorphosing into Shivaji himself. He surrenders all known connections, including his "bucktoothed bride-to-be", arrives breathless at the stable and marries the horse's owner's daughter! "Crescent Moon" tells of a bus-driver whose request for leave for a religious holiday is denied. With a rush of blood, he hijacks his own red double-decker bus and drives through the night 300 km south to his village near Ratnagiri. The bus sits, "like an Airavata", elephant of the clouds and vehicle of the god Indra, in the courtyard of Pandu's family home, in imagery a little like Dagadu and Shivaji. Ordinary lives develop sometimes into the sadness inevitable with grinding poverty; sometimes into joyful self-confidence and small successes, and in these two amusing stories a surreal but somehow credible Indian situation.
Mumbai is humanised and personified, becoming almost anthropomorphic. "The city seemed to him like a mother watching wakefully over all the children asleep on her lap"; "It was as though the bustling city had put on an undershirt and was sitting quietly by itself in a private domestic moment". She is almost always kind.