Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana, is a collection of short stories on his city dating back to the 1980s. In the translator’s note, Niranjana talks of exchanging texts with Kaikini while she rode the local trains – experiencing the city of the stories as she discussed the book with him. The collection brings together ordinary characters in the city such as the bachelor who finds an unexpected visitor at his doorstep, the attendant at a cinema who befriends a regular audience member, and the mischievous child whose father tries to determine if Mumbai is the city that will straighten out or ruin his son. No Presents Please won the 2017 Atta Galatta-BLF Prize and is in the running for The DSC Prize for Literature.
Kaikini spoke to Scroll.in on the linguistic diversity in his life, the magician’s trick that stayed with him, the writers who influenced him, and more, while advocating for an interdisciplinary approach to education that would allow students from the humanities and the sciences to study one another’s subjects. Excerpts from the interview:
Several of these stories were originally published in the ’80s and ’90s. How does it feel to read them in the present day? What is your relationship with your older work?
Yes, most of these stories belong to the pre-smartphone era when people were in communion with the space around them without the barrier of a touchscreen. Entertainment was a social virtue to be relished with other people around – so much so that if movie theatres were mostly empty, even the best of films lost something vital. I don’t revisit my older works unless it is for the purpose of proofreading for new editions. When I do, the mind instantly gets connected to the same vulnerable, raw state of mind from the time of writing – it’s like meeting dear friends again and starting from where we left off last time, they do the same things with the same restlessness on the same pages and make me feel younger.
There’s a discussion at the end of your translated collection which, among other things, debates whether the characters in your stories see their home or their experience as one in Bombay or as one in Malad or Mulund or Andheri. Can you talk to us a little about how you understand this phenomenon where every locality or suburb in Bombay is a world in itself and can constitute a person’s entire version of Bombay?
Mumbai has a collective mind of its own. Whether you are in Mulund or Kandivali or Kala Ghoda, each bit reflects the larger mind. Mumbai becomes a spiritual space due to the inevitably minimalistic way of living due to the lack of physical space to stretch one’s self or accumulate anything extra. And, this is reflected in mindsets as well – there is no space for flab in one’s mind. I like the way Mumbai’s Hindi has shed plural addressing terms like “aap, hum,” instead it is all “tu, mai, tereko, mereko.” A person whose father has expired says, “mera father ‘off’ ho gaya hai.” I find this expression stunningly spiritual. This city just puts you “on.”
Writer Vivek Shanbhag said recently that you “free” your characters by not allowing their caste or village to be identified by the Kannada reader. He also mentions that this is partly made possible by a setting like Bombay. Is that a conscious decision on your part? What would you say drives that choice to leave identifying details about social origins out of the story?
It happened naturally. Most of my characters live in Mumbai. They are Marathi, Gujarati or from some other background, and in my stories, Mumbai becomes a liberating space for them – separate from their biodata, visiting cards and rubber stamps. They all come into my story and talk in Kannada. Isn’t it heartening? I speak Konkani at home, talk in Marathi in local trains, talk in Hindi and English with my colleagues, and then come home and write in Kannada. This multilingual sensibility is a big virtue of any urban or semi-urban place in India. Each language can open a new window in your mind.
No Presents Please is dedicated to “all those orphaned and undelivered letters lying in post offices, addresses unknown, unable to return.” Why those items in particular?
Any objects that become domesticated by human touch are dear to me. Clothes drying on strings, a single baby shoe at a bus stop, a greying hair stuck in a comb – they all tell stories.
The stories are incredibly specific – troublesome children who must be sent to remand homes in Bombay, a bachelor who receives a marriage proposal from a father desperate to marry his daughter off, the sweeper at the cinema and so on. Where do the ideas for your stories usually come from?
It is all about the intensity of our living. Living intensely without analysing or judging enriches our sensibility for unarticulated quests.
Characters and situations appear from nowhere and push us asking “utarneka hai kya?”, like fellow commuters in a crowded local train. I remember a magician who once performed in my school days. He would chew and gulp variety of colour papers, and then pull out rolls and rolls of endless colourful ribbons from his mouth. Life is non-literary, life is unstructured. We try to give our own structure to it to make sense of it.
In a recent interview, you said, “The artificial division of arts and science in education is unfair and has created havoc.” Can you tell us a little more about why you think this? What are some ways in which art and science have intersected in your life?
Science is art and art is science. But unfortunately, our education system does not blend them well. A medical student should be able to study philosophy and literature. A student of linguistics should be able to study quantum physics. The current divide between arts and science has brought us to such a state that people in power, who lack scientific outlook, install thermal power plants in bio-rich green zones without realising the harm caused by radioactive ash emitted by these plants. And there are scientists who look for the “auspicious time” to launch a satellite. I studied biochemistry and worked in the field of pharma production in Mumbai for eighteen years. And I have been writing my poems and short stories all along too. I never felt these two worlds were different.
Are there writers whose work on Bombay moves you or informs your own writing?
I am not a good or prolific reader. My reading in English is very limited. A major Kannada writer named Yashwant Chittal who lived and wrote in Mumbai has deeply influenced me. He was a polymer chemist and also a fine fiction writer in Kannada. His novels dealt with urban human aggression. His sayings such as “I don’t write what I know. I write to know,” and “we are not born human, we are born to be human,” have really helped me.
Have you found differences in the reception of your work by Kannada readers and Anglophone ones?
Surprisingly and hearteningly, yes. Focus and angle of perceptions are distinctly different in English readers and closer to the “frequency” of my writing – maybe because they are drawn to the human matrix of the narrative rather than the regionality of the context.