In a freewheeling conversation at the end of this superb book, the translator Tejaswini Niranjana tells us that while this book was being envisaged, the writer Jayant Kaikini said to her on WhatsApp: “Do not hang all these stories on the Bombay peg.” She told him to trust her. The result is Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, a volume whose wondrous evocation of city life is only aided by the cheeky inclusion of this meta-data.

Kaikini is an extremely well-known figure in the Kannada world, as a writer of short stories, a poet and last but not least, a lyricist for Kannada films (he has won the Filmfare award for Kannada lyrics four times). Now based in Bangalore, Kaikini has previously lived in Mumbai for two decades, working with pharmaceutical companies.

There are other famous Kannada litterateurs who have made Mumbai their home and fictional focus, among them Shantinath Desai and Yashwant Chittal (whose famous 1978 Bombay novel Shikari was also recently translated into English). But Kaikini’s stories seem to breathe the city’s air. Reading them, in Tejaswini Niranjana’s magnificent translation, one feels they simply could not have been written without Mumbai.

Sub-local identities

Part of the reason for this is Kaikini’s obvious spatial immersion in the city, his unerring sense of characters’ lives unfolding not in some generic “Bombay”/”Mumbai”, but in very particular sub-locales. There are several stories here in which Mumbai’s powerful neighbourhood identities are placed upfront. So, for example, in “Opera House”, a cinema sweeper’s sense of local geography illuminates the charms of an increasingly sidelined urban history. “Indranil wove his small world around the Opera House theatre. The night streets, the local trains, the colourful curtains of the rooms of the naachwalis that one could see from Kennedy Bridge, the Anantashram rice-and-fish plate, the round aluminium boxes containing the film reels – these were the small strands of his web.”

Or in “Mogri’s World”, Kaikini delineates with stunning evocativeness what it might be like to grow up in the Shivaji Nagar chawl, or to watch the world go by from inside the Light of India restaurant. Sometimes everything is contained in a one line reference to a place: “The past three days he had got caught in some lafda of a Sindhi fellow in Dombivli.”

Even when a story moves us across the city, Kaikini’s gaze remains located and we always know what speed we’re travelling at. So in “Partner”, Roopak Rathod has his epiphany while gripping the poles of the Murphy Baby hoarding “glistening blue, pink and purple in the weak sunlight near Nana Chowk”. In “Toofan Mail”, we attach ourselves to Toofan and his mother as they walk to the end of Teli Gali, run till Andheri Station, jump into a local train to Dahisar to meet the Toofan Mail. In “Water”, we sit in the back seat as Kunjbihari the driver starts “throwing the taxi into little lanes and alleys” only to get stuck in the torrential rain near Mahim Creek with his two passengers, strangers off a plane.

“Water” is a masterful evocation of how the city reflects itself back – whether it is the view of traffic on the Mahim-Bandra flyover, or the radio song requests that seem to allow communication across the enforced isolation of a crippling breakdown: “For Pankaj, Shweta and Nobin who are stuck at Dadar TT, this special song... Kajra Re”.

Signs and Secrets

Kaikini is powerful and valuable as a documenter, a mapper of the city. But he is much more than that. He is able to make the city resonate with the dreams, hopes and fears of those who live in it. Mumbai’s neighbourhoods and landmarks come to serve as metaphorical markers, animated signs that become keys to the surreal landscape. To Sudhanshu in “Gateway”, the thirty-storied Communication Tower in the distance seems like a giant tomb, with the two big antenna dishes on top like gigantic begging bowls held out.

The title story, “No Presents Please”, effortlessly establishes the mood with its opening reference to the half-finished Ghatkopar Flyover, whose iron spikes Kaikini describes as having trapped bits of the sky. “Below, the vehicles crawled their way through the construction rubble and slowly disappeared. This was the fate of all roads. A man could stop wherever he wanted, but a road?” This is, of course, also the sort of sentence that almost doesn’t need a story attached to it. Kaikini is a poet, and he does aphorism with ease. But as you read on, you are primed to be sensitive to Popat’s sense of being trapped in an identity, by a name that seems to him to leave him nameless.

Sometimes it is a person who becomes a sign, coming to stand in for something in the eyes of the beholder. Seen through Sudhanshu’s tired, questioning eyes, the keychain seller at Kala Ghoda seems like a seer who will answer his life questions. Even this “nameless man with his greying eyebrows” who stands “in two feet of space” is someone for whom Kaikini can conjure up a detailed tender backstory: “when he was a child in the cradle, when he used to be rubbed with oil and then bathed, who competed in school sports, lived different roles”.

In the dream-like world of “Interval”, both Nandu (the battery-torch boy of Malhar Theatre) and Manjari (film-viewer from Mahindrakar Chawl) wordlessly become for each other the beacons of an imagined alternative future. Even when Kaikini enables his two naive protagonists to gently disengage – having made them see, equally wordlessly, that they know nothing about each other – their symbolic importance to each other remains.

There is no dearth here of sociological detail – class, age, gender and caste are sharply observed and sensitively understood. Yet in the end, Kaikini’s Mumbai is a majestic microcosm of humanity, and his stories are concerned with quivering, beautiful examples of how stranger sociality can be meaningful. The locations for these loving exchanges between strangers can range from hospital wards and picture framers’ shops (in the superb “Unframed”) to the tea shop in “A Spare Pair of Legs” at which the village’s naughty boy Chandu encounters the urban working child Popat, one of the “army of brave boys” who “leap from running trains so that not a single peanut fell”, holding the city up on their thin hands like some Govardhan Hill.

Kaikini is often tuned to the saddest, most secret frequencies – the quiz contestant squirming as her father grovels before an oblivious TV show host; the film extra covering her face with her hands as her husband berates her in public for pretending to be shy; the two halves of a couple who’re actually relieved when the other doesn’t come home, because sleep will be undisturbed. He is an antenna, gathering up the city’s dreams and hurt, bewilderment and rage, and transmitting them ever so gently back into the zeitgeist. The result is a gift worth receiving.

No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, Jayant Kaikini, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, HarperCollins India.