As cities have increasingly become hitching posts for books, both fiction and non-fiction, Mumbai has naturally been subjected to thematic treatment. The city is celebrated for its resilience and its cosmopolitanism; tributes wax eloquent about its trains, its sea, its heritage buildings, or the diverse communities that inhabit it, to the point that its greatness has increasingly begun to sound clichéd.
Literature about the city in English and Marathi abounds. Mumbai is also rendered comprehensible and is aesthetically articulated through Hindi, the language of Bollywood. It is difficult to imagine the city through writers writing in languages other than these three, yet Jayant Kaikini’s book of short stories No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, is translated from Kannada, one of the many languages spoken in this cosmopolitan city, but an official language of the neighboring state of Karnataka, the capital of which is the hi-tech Bengaluru. Despite the relatively minor status of Kannada in Mumbai, or perhaps because of it, as the stories unfold and lead to more stories, they are refreshing in the way show the city bringing together thousands of people every day.
Kaikini’s stories capture Mumbai as the scattered-omnipresent influence it holds on individuals living here.
The collection comprises sixteen stories written over thirty years; these are either set in Bombay/Mumbai or are about the city. Each number brings together people unknown to each other in unexpected situations—a marriage proposal, a chance encounter in a cinema hall, a quiz competition, a café, and so on—or, more often, turns people known to each other into unfamiliar people.
In “Tick Tick Friend”, a school girl from another city, Bhopal, has come to Mumbai with her father to participate in a quiz competition. A question about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 rattles her; a casual question for the quiz master, for her it’s a traumatic memory. She wants to back off and withdraw, but is helpless in the face of her father’s insistence that she win the competition to fund her higher studies. When she re-enters the show, and the story ends: she prays for a Bollywood actress to appear on the show because a stranger she had just met had asked her to get the actress’s autograph.
By the time she reached the studio with her father, Madhubani’s mind felt cleansed. Who was this Buddhooram? She felt she had just been born, sitting in front of that man, eating her dosa at the canteen table. How immersed he was in what he said!
None of it makes sense and that is the pleasure at the core of the stories—the unfamiliar becomes suddenly familiar.
“Water”, the most beautiful story in the book, brings together three men in a taxi amid heavy rains that are known to flood (water-log is a better description) Mumbai every year. Like the girl from “Tick Tick Friend”, here is a rich man who is also “born” in front of a stranger in the way he breaks open in the confession to the driver.
Santoshan squeezed the driver’s shoulder, saying, “You know why I got this sickness? I was one of the first in this country to sell water. In the 1970s, I was the first to bottle water and sell it. My mind was telling me not to, but I did it all the same. You said earlier that money flows like hidden water, but I sold the water that was before my eyes. The happiness you get from doing what’s right is nothing compared to the unhappiness of doing something even while knowing it’s wrong. That’s a sin. That’s why I’ve fallen sick. It’s my body punishing me for not listening to myself. I now have to experience this—there’s no way out.”
The beauty of all the stories lies in such conversations. Contrary to internationally well-known works about the city which tend to bombast in their explicitly philosophizing, in these works, ironically, the city vanishes in the process of highlighting the city. Kaikini accomplishes through rare descriptive writing; here on a train:
The compartment was plastered with abortion clinic posters, and the women commuters hung grimly on to the rod, clutching handbags to their bosoms. Their right hands looked as though they had been made strong by the daily hanging routine. What a life for a woman, thought Mogri. It was perhaps in that compartment that Mogri outgrew the phase of the hidden treasure, and was catapulted into a different life.
This, then, is a fitting tribute paid to the city through fiction: the microcosms of settings and relationships that allow the characters, and thereby the readers, especially the city dwellers (Mumbaikars as they are called) to be born again, or assume a new life. Kaikini’s stories capture Mumbai as the scattered-omnipresent influence it holds on individuals living here.