A collection of short stories centred on the city of Mumbai as the protagonist evocatively explores and documents neighbourhood identities, familial ties, and encounters with strangers
On Jayant Kaikini’s ‘No Presents Please’
Bombay has been the subject of several novels and short stories. Her history, position of power, the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous, the underworld, and a vibrant, diverse underbelly has inspired writers, poets, photographers and cinema. A slim collection of short stories, No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories written in Kannada by Jayant Kaikini is a stellar addition to the repertoire of Bombay / Mumbai books. Translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, the book received critical acclaim, and an inevitable list of nominations and prizes.
Jayant Kaikini was born in Gokarna, a coastal town in western India well-known for its beaches and temples. Like most people in Bombay, he was a migrant who stayed for over two decades before leaving for Bangalore. He has been a biochemist, a writer, a poet, and worked in television, winning accolades along the way. Kaikini is both an insider and an outsider to these stories and the city. One can imagine him unobtrusively observing Bombay, gleaning the stories in this collection from impassive faces on a crowded train, and retell them with compassion and tenderness.
A dark hardback with a photo of a shirt hanging from a window (by Nitesh Mohanty) stands quietly, compelling a closer look. Told in 16 stories and a conversation written over three decades, the book is nostalgic, critical, yet optimistic. These are stories of ordinary people— chawl dwellers, migrant labourers, fortune seekers, lovers and dreamers. Family, friendship, aspirations and reflections are at the heart, and Kaikini approaches his character with familiarity and empathy. The writing (which we approach through a fine translation) has an easy rhythm and visual quality to it. Bombay is a constant presence, a protagonist too, who makes many of these cities possible. Local trains, a work-ethic, a different system of hierarchy, people packed together, pushing themselves against harsh circumstances. Much of this struggle is only possible in specific parts of the city — recognisable easily, and central to the lives and times of the protagonists.
An initial skim will have you believe the book is about love stories — finding love, losing it, fighting for it, and celebrating it. From the first story, City Without Mirrors the reader plunges into a complex whirlwind of emotions. A simple man, Satyajit fights himself and knowing better, when he receives an unexpected proposal, and has a conflicted moment of empathy and despair when an old father offers him the proof of his middle-aged daughter’s virginity. How does a person, who has accepted a life of solitude respond to a sudden possibility of a companion? What are his moral qualms? Pages will fly but the lump in your throat will stay. In contrast to the mature Satyajit, is Popat from the last story, No Presents Please. Popat touches you with his sincere hope and attempts to make one worthy of a partner, trying to plan his wedding the right way, even as the protagonist, Popat, deals with his own limitations and humble background. In Crescent Moon, Pandurang Khot has had his leave application for Ganapati rejected, and taking matters in his own hands, he steals a double-decker bus, and drives to his village, to partake celebrations and play a part in the annual village theatrical production. While you can’t help but like the affable Pandurang, things get murky when he is infatuated with the lascivious star of a visiting theatre troop.
Family and the lack of it is another theme of the novel. Whether it is finding photos to create dubious parentage to convince the bride’s family, or becoming a daredevil stuntman in Toofan Mail, or the conflicted emotions when considering a remedial home for a delinquent son (A Spare Pair of Legs), stories map out the maze of human emotions, the grey areas of love, imposition of shame, the shades within a person’s character, and coping with the consequence of love, loss and societal pressures, and prejudice.
Women are not marginalised in the stories, they have a voice, agency, and make a choice,
whether it is to run away from home, walk away from an unsuitable relationship to freedom, or, as in Inside the Inner Room, the wife and mistress make an unlikely friendship, becoming one entity, scaring the husband out of the house! The husband, although has hurt both women, isn’t quite vilified but exchanged for a more gratifying bond and companionship. Kaikini deals with the female characters with the same compassion he shows his male protagonists, who in turn deal with their rival wives with compassion and dignity. Sudhanshu (in Gateway) has lost his job, but his wife Pali cajoles him from despondency, with her grit and commitment to their future. In Mogri you meet a girl who controls her own narrative, despite all the odds, standing up for herself and what she believes is right.
The novel ends with a note by the translator, describing her process of translation, choice of re-translating previously published work, and wandering around the Bombay of the stories, seeing characters around her. Skippable is the transcript of a conversation between Surabhi Sharma, a film-maker interested in adapting a few stories into a screenplay; Nisha Susan, an English-language journalist and writer; Ashwin Kumar A.P, a researcher and reader; and Tejaswini Nirajana, the translator. They are all familiar with Kaikini’s repertoire and this particular collection. Through their conversation, they discuss its ‘Bombay’ nature, the development of characters and where the story ends, the limitations of cinema and the freedom of a story. Issues raised in the collection are evoked, and the conversation may nudge the reader to revisit some of the stories. The physical and mental landscape of Kaikini and his characters is explored, but the elegance of Kaikini’s prose makes the discussion seem trite and unnecessary.
The triumph of the collection is in keeping its characters alive, long after the story is over. You walk with the characters, get to know their neighbours, their friends, bullies, and relatives. Can you forgive the Mahajans for their callous attitude to their help? Are you not relieved that Chandu’s dad had a rethink about leaving him behind? Don’t you cheer for Mogri, and wish her a peaceful life? One can’t help but feel wistful for single-screen cinemas closing, and pathos for characters left in a lurch. It’s the humanity with all its flaws and strengths that one carries. Laid out in a beautiful sequence, the characters merge into each other and often overlap. Did the tea-boy urchin Popat grow up to be Asavari’s fiancé? Kaikini grasps moments of change rather delicately — weather disasters, or changes in infrastructure, never-ending construction, and shifting celebrity obsessions. Despite being written over the years, they are relevant, recognisable and relatable. Do things change very much, for the common man and woman? How much can life change for the daily-wager, for someone trying to piece together a living? Survive they all do, and it is the extraordinary within the mundane that Kaikini’s stories champion.
Unexpected acts of generosity, attempts at improving circumstances, succumbing to pressures — the collection explores human behaviour without judgment. If one can move beyond the ‘spirit of Bombay’ narrative, the book brings out challenges of being human in a harsh reality, with all its conflict and vulnerability. Kaikini explores the nature of courage and cowardice, of helplessness and taking charge. It engenders reflection on the magic and absurdity in the extraordinary mundane. An intimate view into lives of people, it offers little comfort and resolution of issues. If you expected a book of Bombay stories, you’d find it here, but prepare to be surprised, moved, and occasionally delighted. No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories is, indeed, a gift.
No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, authored by Jayant Kaikini and translated by Tejaswini Niranjana is published by HarperCollins India (2017).