Jayant Kaikini chuckles when I tell him I would like to be a character in his story.

We are driving around in south Bangalore, looking for a cafe where we can sit and talk about Mithun Number Two, the Kannada writer-poet’s latest collection of stories translated into English by the academic and cultural theorist, Tejaswini Niranjana.

Some writers excel in putting their characters under a clinical gaze, in piercing the bubble of their self-delusions, in remorselessly showing them to be the limited creatures of their time. Kaikini is not one of them.

In Kaikini’s world, however flawed and ordinary, characters are touched by their creator’s kindness and understanding, if not elevated by his sense of wonder about their lives.

Kaikini admits that he does not really dislike any of his characters. “When I finally understand why they do what they do, I feel bad for them,” he says. “I don’t judge because I feel connected.”

In many ways, Mumbai is a metaphor for that connection.

In 1976, Kaikini travelled from Gokarna to Bombay to work in pharmaceutical companies, treading a path several generations from the coasts of Karnataka have taken. He ended up spending 24 years there, writing away from the gaze of a Kannada critical establishment that was influenced by the Navya (modernist) or Bandaya literary movements. The latter, especially, believed in the primacy of literature’s social role.

Kaikini’s fiction, with its attention to inner lives and the poetry of the everyday, was always “out of syllabus” and fell on a blind spot.

When I last interviewed him in 2018, he spoke about the easy egalitarianism of the city, how it hurls you in proximity with the most marginalised. “There is no aap in the city’s Hindi, everyone is tereko and mereko. Even the biggest boss of a company is spoken to by a worker like this. That liberated me,” he had said.

In 2018, No Presents Please introduced the Anglophone reader to Kaikini’s distinctive oeuvre – stories that capture Bombay’s people as they encounter a frisson of enigma and the surreal in their lives. It earned the writer and Niranjana the DSC Prize for Literature.

Mithun Number Two is dedicated to those who take these journeys into the heart of a city – “the nameless Mumbai commuter/ with season pass, comb and tiny lunchbox / sprinting down the platform/jumping into the local train/ every single day”.

The migration project

Several of his stories take place outside, on the move, amid the press and crush of people – in train compartments, in the back seats of taxis, on a rain-beaten footpath. “Hello, Mike Testing”, a string of vignettes involving two mimicry artists, opens with them walking towards a Wheeler’s stall at Churchgate station, easing into the flow of people and into a Virar local. That crowded compartment becomes an unlikely setting for an epiphany. “Looking at the commuters dangling from the metal manacles above, Ghanshyam feels as though his soul has been distributed amongst them.”

Much like his character, Kaikini is not bruised by crowds. Cast into a river of people – on streets, buses and markets – he finds comfort, even inspiration.

“I feel very safe with people. I feel we are all connected, all extensions of each other,” he says. “Just like when you are outside an operating theatre in a hospital, you are already connected with the others waiting with you. You are on a collective journey.”

The Bombay evoked in No Presents Please is not the generic city of popular images, but a collage of the many distinct geographies jostling within it, from Dombivali to Thane to Vasai. Through his sliver-of-life stories, Kaikini sketches the inner lives, silent deceptions and dream worlds of its inhabitants.

He reminds me that he never thought of them as “Bombay” stories. Kaikini was famously reluctant to “hang all the stories on a Bombay peg” in No Presents Please, but gave in to his translator’s instinct.

Niranjana has been key to shaping both the collections and the writer-translator share a seamless, if minimal relationship. “People find it hard to believe but we have minimum interaction or collaboration in choosing the stories,” he says. “I sent her a list of stories I think would work for this collection and she chose some, rejected others. And that’s how it should be. The translated work is a different being – a child set free into the world. Ultimately, the translator has to enjoy it. You should not translate something you don’t enjoy.”

Unlike many other writers, Kaikini is blithe about not taking himself too seriously. His eyes twinkle as he leans in conspiratorially. “In fact, one of the stories on that list was my favourite – it’s called ‘Madhubala in Kannada’ and is set around Haji Ali and Dhobi Ghat. Tejaswini thought it did not fit in this collection. I am mentioning it here so that she includes it in the next,” he says, laughing.

While most stories in No Presents Please plunges the reader in medias res of his characters’ lives, Mithun Number Two casts a longer look back at the coastal towns and villages from where they set forth – from Shirur to Hiregutthi to Mundgod. In the new collection, Kaikini says, “Niranjana wanted to highlight the migration aspect.”

The migrants include an impressive cast of artists – for whom art does not bring fame or glamour, but is “a mode of thought”, a way of life. From KK in “Spotless”, who spends his life teaching drawing to children on the city’s streets and who was based on Kamalaksha Shenoy, Kaikini’s artist-friend who started a footpath gallery outside Jehangir Art Gallery; to Rocket Tejbali, the ageing star motorcyclist of Diamond Circus’s well of death, to the mimicry artists of the opening story.

Kaikini confesses he is fascinated by mimicry artists. “Every writer is a great mimic. I know how each of my characters looks, and I can even act how his or her face scrunches up as she speaks, what his gestures look like. The only difference is the writer is not doing it in public but in language.”

To read Kaikini is to encounter a radical empathy with human life, but also to be aware of the poetic possibilities of everyday life – and its objects.

Like the season pass of his dedication, quotidian objects are crucial to the stories of No Presents Please and Mithun Number Two.

Whether it is a flask or a grand piano or the dressing mirror in a second-hand shop, a metal cupboard or a stuntman’s bike, objects bear the imprint of time and human life – some even become portals to another experience. “The objects with which you live become part of you. I just can’t understand how people change their houses, curtains, furniture, cars all the time,” Kaikini says.

‘Ghadat aahe’

A brand-new desk, he says, has nothing to tell him. “But think of the desks in schools, the many hearts on them. An old harmonium, its keys discoloured, but so many people have played on it. This is why I like handwriting. It doesn’t look final, it is tentative and unfinished – it looks human. Literature too is like a quilt made of bits of used clothes from loved ones. That’s why it is warm.”

In the course of these stories, the ordinary gives way to something enigmatic, and his characters come close to an experience that can only be called spiritual. “It is such an experience that the more you zoom in, the more evasive it is. It is like a komal swar that comes in an alaap,” Kaikini says. “If the singer goes on stressing it more, then the sense of proportion is lost.”

Like all poets, Kaikini’s trust is in that which cannot be said. “I am not interested in what happens to the person after that experience. I am interested only in that moment,” he says. “It is like sitting in a window seat in a public transport. You see something else [outside yourself]. In Marathi, there is an expression called ghadat aahe, which means, ‘It is happening’. I am interested in that which is happening.”

Some of his readers have been bothered by the open-endedness of his stories, including his mother. “She is an avid reader. But she always reads the last page of a story or a book first. ‘I don’t want tension’, she says.” Kaikini adds, “She was so unhappy with the uncertain way my stories ended that she would write to me, ‘What happens to the character? You have to tell me.’ And then I had to write back, saying this is what I think would have happened to him.”

The irresolution of his stories is organic, he points out. “The story tells me to stop. Its shape is within it, just like a fish comes with its own structure, or a tree carries its shape even when it is a plant,” he says. “Life is non-literary. It has no structure. We try to create structure through art and literature to understand life. Just like we have windows to look beyond.”

Other readers, too, have remarked on the unusual endings of his stories. “A reader of mine, Srinivas Jokatte, a Kannada journalist in Bombay for the last 30 years, told me something I liked very much. ‘As we come to the end of your stories,’ he told me, ‘it seems as if the music has stopped. Suddenly you don’t hear anything’.”

A poet and a playwright

While the literary world knows of him as a poet and writer, the young people of Bangalore recognise him for his lyrics for Kannada cinema.

For every fan who walks up to him in a public place – and there are many, including the autorickshaw driver who gladly agrees to take a photograph of us – he has a pleasant word, a fond question.

“I have written 550 songs in the last decade,” he says. “It is a big challenge. What new thing can you say in a love song?” Often, the fame sits uneasily on him. “There is a new generation that has not been exposed to great Kannada literature. They think that what I write for lyrics is great poetry. It is embarrassing.”

But he makes it a point to use his fame and talk to young people about the old-fashioned values of another time, of the need for diversity, of the ties that bind everyone. “I would rather go to schools and talk to them than promote myself at literary festivals.”

The challenge to progressive politics has, in some ways, come to Kaikini’s door. In 2022, the performance of his play, Jategiruvana Chandira, a Kannada adaptation of Joseph Stein’s Fiddler on the Roof, was stopped by Hindutva activists in Shivamogga.

I ask him what it is to be an artist when politics has invaded the most intimate places. “Plurality is the essence of my writing. My songs are sung by everyone, no matter their caste, creed or religion,” he says. “The art I create is an antidote to what is happening around us.”

Writer Jayant Kaikini. Credit: Dinesh Shenoy.

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‘Mithun Number Two’: Jayant Kaikini’s stories present the impossible dream – and reality – of Mumbai