Jayant Kaikini is an Indian (Kannada) poet, short story writer, playwright, a public intellectual and a lyricist in Kannada Cinema. Kannada is new to me, but it’s the language widely spoken in the Indian state of Karnataka, where Kaikini was born (in 1955). He is regarded, according to Wikipedia, as one of the most significant contemporary writers in Kannada and is “credited with revolutionising the image of Kannada film songs”. I make this point because references to film and film songs abound in No presents please.
No presents please is a collection of short stories that are both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, but before I talk about them I’d like to share some insights from the translator, Tejaswini Niranjana, who was also involved in selecting the stories. She shares the issues she faced in translating Kaikini’s work, particularly “the flavour of the speech, the hybrid Hindu-Urdu-Dakhani speech, that is the cultural vernacular of Bombay” and is prominent in the stories. It’s clear that there were vigorous discussions about translating this speech. Kaikini apparently complained about her “frugality”, but she was worried about how the book would challenge readers not proficient in Hindustani. She solved it “by doing parallel translations–leaving in the Hindustani but giving the meaning in English either close by or elsewhere in the sentence so that the attentive reader eventually understands the meaning”. I read this discussion after reading the book. I must say that there were times when I was a little challenged, but my reading philosophy is to go with the flow and, overall, Niranjana’s approach combined with my strategy worked!
The other point I want to share is Niranjana’s insight into the content of these stories which, as the subtitle clearly states, are about Mumbai. But, here’s the thing: Kaikini has, Niranjana writes, “mastered the ruse of the ordinary”. By this she means that every story “begins with an extremely ordinary person or situation–sometimes both” but that “the ordinary often reveals itself as surreal”. Her challenge was
to maintain the ordinariness of the narrative until it could be maintained no longer, and to let the translation lead the reader along without drawing attention to itself. At the same time, when the surreal began to seep into the story, and the ruse of the ordinary opened out onto a different terrain of engagement for the characters, the translation had to find the right words to signal this “turn”.
She’s right about the stories moving, almost imperceptibly at times, from the ordinary to the surreal. I suspect that Kaikini’s (sometimes subtle, sometimes less so) references to cinema help us readers have the right mindset for shifting between reality and illusion, which is more how I would describe most of the funny little moments, than actual surrealism.
So, the collection. Titled by last story in the book, it contains sixteen stories, dated between 1986 and 2006. All are written third person, and explore Mumbai as it is experienced by its “ordinary” inhabitants. The first story, “Interval”, is about a young couple who meet at a cinema where he works and she’s an audience member:
That these two were planning to run away together early tomorrow was a fact nestling snugly in the dark, like the secret of a bud that had not yet blossomed.
You can tell here that Kaikini was first a poet. What happens is not at all what you would expect – which is one of the delights of this collection. The stories are not predictable, but neither do they have dramatic twists. Things just work out differently, quite often. In a neat rounding off, the last, titular, story, is about a young engaged couple with no family, and what happens as they draft their wedding invitation.
“the friendships among strangers” (City without mirrors)
In between are stories about, for example, a father looking for a husband for his daughter (“City without mirrors”), the despairing father of a very naughty but irrepressible 6-year-old-boy (“A spare pair of legs”), a bus-driver wanting to return to his village for an annual festival (“Crescent moon”), a stunt man (“Toofan Mail”), roommates who suddenly become estranged (“Partners”), a loyal maid who becomes ill (“A truck full of Chrysanthemums”), and a child quiz contestant (“Tick tick friend”). These stories pull no punches about the lives of people living on the margins or struggling in some way. Kaikini is not afraid to expose some of Mumbai’s (and India’s) underbelly. In “City without mirrors”, a bachelor is “aghast at the cruelty of a situation in which an old man had to speak to a complete stranger about the proof of virginity of his nearly forty-year-old daughter”.
Many of the stories, like “City of mirrors”, involve chance meetings between strangers, strangers who tend to offer something positive, rather than danger. “Tick tick friend” is about a young quiz contestant coming to the big city to compete in a television studio that happens to be in the basement of a hospital. Schoolgirl Madhu and her father meet a young man in the hospital canteen. His cheeky, positive attitude to life buoys them. Mogri (“Mogri’s world”) grows up in a chawl with her mother and frequently absent father. Early on, she realises that sex can be women’s downfall, but learns through meeting an older waiter at work that there are different ways of being between men and women.
In “Water”, two men, one ill with cancer, meet on a plane and spend a night with the third, their taxi-driver, when a huge storm creates havoc in the city. It’s a moving story, full of philosophical observations about life. Taxi-driver Kunjbhai, answering whether life seems “like hell or like heaven”, says:
Well, everything depends on how we think about it. If I think I’m happy, it’s happy I am. If I think I’m sad, then I’m sad.
That may sound a bit pat, I suppose, but in the context, it’s beautiful. I liked this story for the warmth generated between three strangers.
And that’s the thing about this book. For all the challenges most of its characters face, there is also warmth and humour in the telling, the end result being stories that don’t drag you down but that also don’t lull you into thinking all is well. There’s acceptance and resilience, but also little glimmers of hope in the stories.
No presents please won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2018. It’s the first translated work to win the award, and the jury particularly noted “the outstanding contribution” of the translator. That tells you, I think, how special this book is.
No presents please: Mumbai stories
Translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana
Melbourne: Scribe, 2020 (Orig. pub. in India, 2017)
(Review copy courtesy Scribe)