A pre-smartphone flirtation India (remember that?) comes alive in Amrita Mahale’s debut novel, Milk Teeth. Set in Bombay-turned-Mumbai at the turn of the century, the book sees Bombay girl Ira(wati) Kamat grow up as she actually, for real, leaves her Matunga flat and all its familiar inhabitants to discover the world all by herself.
Ira and her neighbour Kartik Kini are sheltered Konkani kids growing up in a dilapidated but rent-controlled old building in a soon to disappear version of Matunga. Their childhood seems familiar and idyllic, entrenched in middle-class morality, setting them up for a respectable, white collar success. As they grow up, the usual preoccupations of one’s rank in childhood building gangs are replaced by those about one’s standing in the society – gossip flies thick and fast about marriage prospects, salary offers at brand new, brand name MNCs, and the larger fortunes of the building’s sons and daughters.
Anyone on the less dramatic side of 30 who grew up in the city will be familiar with Milk Teeth’s Mumbai. In your face Americana is still cool, STD calls are saved up for, and the best a modern young women can hope for is the 1990s version of a right swipe: an arranged-cum-love marriage that adheres to mummy-daddy’s unspoken caste-and-class rules. Bombay breathes on every page, through each of the novel’s pivotal characters – in Ira’s wading through sewer reports for her newspaper’s city beat, in architecture student Kaiz’s studied yet poetic love of its buildings, and the acceptance the goodest of boys, Kartik, finds in its underbelly.
Milk Teeth is also a romance. It contains all the required elements: seemingly star-crossed lovers featuring an enigmatic man and a headstrong woman, meddling families bent on arranging the perfect match, secret assignations thick with dramatic tension. But where this love story transcends its much maligned (and unfairly so) form is the depth of Ira’s yearning. The starkness of her desire – to both be loved and cherished in the manner she can see herself getting accustomed to – has all the makings of present day millennial expectations.
Even in Part 1 – titled “Ira and Kartik”, and ostensibly about them as a unit – it is Ira’s desire to be validated by the person she most admires that propels the narrative forward. From the sanctity of the first bloom of love to the sharp-eyed tension of a Big Romance, the story unfolds at a languid pace until the final third of the book, centred around Kartik.
Here, it picks up the pace, hurtling through his anxieties that seem to mirror that of the people around him. Everyone is grappling with their position in a city that no longer seems to have any room for them. This quick clip leads us to a dramatic ending, leaving the reader wanting more.
Behind the romance
It would be easy to relegate Ira’s story to the domain of fluffy chick-lit, were it not for how unafraid Milk Teeth is to expose middle-class hypocrisy at each turn. It is this lack of fear that prevents the sweetness of what could be an Aditya Chopra orchestrated romance – complete with rooftop kissing and inside jokes – from becoming overly saccharine. Instead, caste obsessions, family considerations, and a liberal-in-name-only India are given the starring role that they are actually accorded when dealing with matters of the heart outside of the pages of a book.
But even this is only to a degree – every charge of the unfairness of the world they are living in is inadequately addressed. Often the hard questions are flung out into the world, but no satisfactory response is heard. The characters carry on as they ordinarily would, creating imperfect resolutions where people do not receive their deserved comeuppance. It is a valiant attempt at a real romance, but these aren’t silly conflicts easily resolved with a bit of sense and a reasonable conversation. The dividing lines of the city cut short budding relationships as easily as the immaturity of the lovers involved. But the novel ultimately pushes the genre a step forward.
Milk Teeth is immediately endearing to anyone who believes or wants to believe in the romance of Bombay. The generation it describes might not be ready to view their relatively recent childhood through a sepia-toned nostalgic lens just yet, but if it were forced to, Mahale should be first pick to transcribe its travails.
Milk Teeth, Amrita Mahale, Context.