Was this how it felt, to be afflicted with the disease called Mumbai?

— from ‘The Recluse’.

The time we were living in, this minute, in Mumbai, how were we experiencing it differently?

— from ‘The Recluse’.

The city of Mumbai does not stop at its borders – the metropolitan is spread over a whopping land area of nearly 6,350 square kilometres and across every Indian’s imagination. A Bollywood song quite literally called the city “meri jaan”, and there are more films, books, and TV shows about Mumbai and the struggles of its residents than perhaps any other city in India. It’s not enough to be a “local” – one needs great determination and a good amount of stubbornness to “make it” in Mumbai. The city will test you in many ways. The roads are choked, the rents are sky-high, the living cost is one of the highest in the world, while the quality of life itself is not much to speak of. And yet, Mumbai is the city of dreams. A maya nagari. The jaan of Mumbaikars.

The pull of Mumbai is undeniable. It’s hypnotic in a sense – the dizzyingly tall skyscrapers, the modern sea bridges, the glittering shops and malls seem to make every trouble worth it. Even ghastly terror attacks and communal violence cannot break the city’s resilient spirit. If the city houses some of the world’s richest and the most glamorous, it is also home to one of the world’s largest slums. So what explains this (glaring) contrast and why do we still dream of Mumbai?

My relationship with Mumbai is that of a tourist. I wander in and out of the art galleries in Colaba, take long walks at the Marine Drive, dine at the carefully curated restaurants inside the refurbished Kamala Mills. This is a stunning but decidedly limited view of the city. It is perhaps easier to be so fond of a city when you don’t have to take on the challenges of living it.

Who is Mumbai?

Jayant Kaikini’s Mumbai sprawls beyond the nook that is called SoBo or South Bombay. Unlike my Bombay, his Mumbai can be found at the Goa border and in Gokarna, Karnataka too. He confirms my suspicion that indeed, Mumbai does not end at its borders – the city has become a symbol of what the best of life, at least in India, can look like. In Mithun Number Two and Other Stories, Kaikini’s second book of short stories in translation, the Mumbai that is offered to us is of the yesteryears – 1990s to early 2000s. For a city that is as fast-paced as Mumbai, twenty years ago surely does feel like a historically different time.

Mumbai will always be known for its vibrant migrant community, regardless of how hard local governments try to uproot them. In Kaikini’s stories too we see men and women from nameless, faceless towns pouring into the city with a simple dream – to earn money and survive. They know that material (and social) wealth is beyond their reach so it is best to accept their fates and settle for whatever crumbs the city throws its way. Most of Kaikini’s characters live in one-room kholis and make money doing jobs that have no real contribution to making Mumbai’s wealth – these people sell fruits and song cassettes, are acrobats in travelling circuses, perform mimicry at neighbourhood parties, teach art to street children, or are minors employed as domestic servants in middle-income households. Any of them could disappear from Mumbai’s streets at any point in time without making the slightest difference to the city’s constitution. The neglected masses – that somehow keep Mumbai’s battered wheels turning – remain unseen, uncared, and unaccounted for.

Women try to make the best of their physical disabilities and financial handicaps. The ones with an enterprising nature are quick to act – a mother realises the value of turning her deformed baby into a circus specimen while a daughter conveniently falls in love with a factory worker, never mind that he is an abusive alcoholic, to secure a company quarter in a city where there is no guarantee of a roof above one’s head. It is difficult to retain one’s humanity when the fight to survive is so dire and constant.

And what is Mumbai without Bollywood? There’s something in the city’s air that makes each of us feel like we were made for the silver screen – and this predicament is especially complicated for a young man who thinks he looks exactly like the erstwhile superstar Mithun Chakraborty. With a dream and gift for flamboyance, Mithun Number Two sets off for the City of Dreams to meet his hero and perhaps star in a film or two too. The heady desire for fame and wealth makes even this ludicrous dream not just feel achievable but necessary to keep him going in an otherwise ruthless city.

Kaikini’s eyes are always turned to the underdogs – what do they do, how do they survive, why do they come to Mumbai at all? Their dreams are humble and yet impossible to achieve with the socio-economic odds stacked against them. The city keeps rejecting them over and over again and yet like desperate, forlorn lovers, the nobodies flock to it in millions in hopes of making it like the real Mithun Chakraborty, a rare rags-to-riches Mumbai story.

Tejaswini Niranjana, who has previously translated another collection of Kaikini’s short stories, is familiar with the author’s rhythms and quirks, which she brings forth in her translation with practised ease. The mixed usage of Kannada, Hindi, and English does a wonderful job of illustrating the multi-faceted, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual heritage of Mumbai that makes the city the true stuff of dreams.

Mithun Number Two and Other Mumbai Stories, Jayant Kaikini, translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana, Eka/Westland.