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‘Looking at the incandescent door’ [book review]

A review of No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini, translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana

Mumbai. Say the name and it conjures multitudes: one of the world’s most populated cities, its streets awash with life, a sea of endless opportunity and dashed hopes, extreme wealth and abject poverty. Mumbai, with its grand colonial buildings and ocean views and foggy skies, is surely one of the most written-about cities in India, the setting of dreams for any aspiring novelist. It can be all too easy to bend to a place like this, to make the city bigger than its people, to lose sight of the story in trying to describe the boggling place in which it is set. No Presents Please, Jayant Kaikini’s collection of short stories in beautiful English translation by Tejaswini Niranjana, does quite the opposite: by erasing the setting of Mumbai in favour of his characters, Kaikini portrays this fabled city with remarkable nuance and clarity.

No Presents Please Jayant Kaikini

Though defined as a collection of Mumbai stories, Kaikini’s short fiction, written over a period of roughly thirty years, appears at first to be largely ignoring the city as a place, focusing solely on the characters that populate its streets. At times this erasure seems natural – in ‘Crescent Moon’, for example, we are very quickly taken out of Mumbai when a bus driver absconds to his home village in the vehicle he drives around the city – and at other times is effected with something akin to violence: in ‘Water’, three men in a taxi watch as monsoon rain obscures the city, blurring its outlines before their very eyes. In most stories we are given a view of only a tiny corner of Mumbai, usually from some obscure angle: the interior of a framing shop, for example, or a rundown cinema seen by night. Always it is the people who inhabit these spaces that come to the fore, yet in focusing on these seemingly insignificant figures and details, Kaikini builds up a picture of the city more complete than most. His Mumbai is more than just a collection of streets; it is a manmade organism, an assortment of dreams, all the encounters and incidents and missed opportunities to which the city itself gives rise.

I will admit that it did take me a little while to get into the collection – perhaps it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting from ‘Mumbai stories’; though beautifully written, the first few seemed a little too microscopic in their outlook, and I couldn’t quite find the thread that bound them together – but once I had understood it, I was hooked. I also began to appreciate how Kaikini blends the bizarre with the everyday in a way that is sometimes hard to discern, so infinitesimal is the slide from realism to surrealism. Many of the stories tip over this edge and leave the reader with a slightly unsettled feeling: in ‘Inside the Inner Room’, a wife and a mistress develop an unexpected relationship; ‘A Spare Pair of Legs’ sees a boy from the countryside trailed by a boy he meets in the city, perhaps haunted by the child he could have been under different circumstances; in ‘A Truckful of Chrysanthemums’, an old servant is left to die as the family she has devoted her life to eats in front of her. There is cruelty and hardship aplenty in these stories, much of it directed at women, but it is mostly dealt with obliquely, such as when the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 becomes a question in a competitive quiz for schoolchildren, a fatal disaster reduced to popular entertainment. Kaikini constructs his stories in such a way that the reader doesn’t always notice what he is doing; only afterwards, thinking about it, does the brutality become apparent with something of a shock.

There is beauty, too, in No Presents Please, much of it unexpected and staggering. The aforementioned ‘Water’, which recounts the meeting of strangers during a taxi ride in a violent storm, is incredibly evocative, a tangible sense of place arising even as – or rather because – the rain blurs our view of the city. More beautiful still is ‘Mogri’s World’, in which a young woman takes a job at one of Mumbai’s legendary Iranian cafés and in one scene stands by the door with its owner, gazing out at the rain. ‘Imagine that the open door is a painting,’ he tells her, a sentence which is as close as Kaikini ever gets to describing the way he seems to view the world. Each of these stories offers us just that: a glimpse of a vast city seen through the frame of an open doorway, the scene always limited but constantly changing. Later in the story, it rains again, and the two characters stand side by side ‘looking at the incandescent door’ – a scene which in its entirety is relatively simple yet somehow transcendent.

No Presents Please is imbued with a love for Mumbai that becomes apparent only slowly and is, according to the translator’s note, felt by both Kaikini and Niranjana. Unusually, Kaikini writes in Kannada – English, Marathi and Hindi are the most common languages used for literature about Mumbai – and this (for the city, at least) slightly marginal language adds an element of ‘outsiderism’ that only underlines his tales of lives lived in the peripheries. Niranjana has maintained this sense of being of the edge of things for an English-speaking audience with a translation that flows beautifully yet continually brings the reader up sharply with a few words of the original language. These offer a clear sense of setting and are always explained with a subtle simultaneous translation, allowing us still to understand what is going on even if on the surface we don’t immediately realise it. At other times, we are given more obvious access to elements of Mumbai culture – in ‘Water’, a common idiom for rain is explained and given from then on as an integral part of the text. Instead of it simply raining, ‘water was falling’ on the city.

‘This city never lets go of your hand,’ says one of Kaikini’s characters, a sentiment that appears to be echoed by many throughout the collection. It is tough, certainly, but it is also filled with moments of unexpected beauty; the characters are often cruel to one another, but at other moments they will be kind. Though it might be impossible to convey a city such as Mumbai in mere words, Kaikini is an author who does more than just try: in alighting on brief moments and individual lives, he gives us a real understanding of what life is in this metropolis. A love letter to Mumbai and to humanity in general – including its less salubrious aspects, the despair, the suffering, the surreal – No Presents Please is a collection of immense depth and quiet but lasting beauty.

No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, is published by Tilted Axis Press on 10 September 2020. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing me with a review copy.


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