Tilted Axis Press is a doing a wonderful job of publishing Asian fiction and thanks to them I have discovered the writing of Jayant Kaikini, and more specifically this excellent short story collection penned by him. Jayant Kaikini is a well-known Kannada poet and prose writer, having won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 974. While he is now settled with his family in Bangalore, he worked in Mumbai for two decades and in this collection of stories has perfectly captured the flavor of the city.
No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.
The stories “Interval” and “Crescent Moon” both depict individuals who feel constrained by their present circumstances and yearn to escape, and one day very suddenly actually do so. In “Interval”, twenty-year old Manjari Sawant and her beau Nandkishore Jagtap alias Nandu decide to secretly elope. Manjari stays in a chawl next to the ice factory in Thane, while Nandu is an attendant at Malhar Cinema. Manjari is fed up of a life that revolves around endless cooking, cleaning and washing and dreams of a better life, a view shared by Nandu who is bored of his daily routine too. On the day they elope, both put into motion their dreams of starting a new life but in unexpected ways.
In “Crescent Moon”, Pandurang Khot is a bus conductor stationed at Ghatkopar Depot. Every year during Ganesh Chaturthi, Pandurang travels to his village to participate in the festivities and to immerse himself in the revelries and the bonhomie of the villagers. But when his superior refuses to grant him leave this year, Pandurang is beside himself with rage. He starts the bus seemingly giving the impression that he is on his everyday rounds but then on the spur of the moment makes a detour and drives the bus all the way to his village.
“Dagadu Parab’s Wedding Horse”, one of my favourites in the collection, brims with absurd comic elements. The action begins on Mulund’s LBS Road where Dagadu, the bridegroom, in all his wedding finery is perched on a starved-looking brown horse, moving along with the procession. We learn that the horse has been stolen from one of the stables and when they reach the Shivaji Maharaj statue all hell breaks loose. The sound of a motorcycle screeching frightens the horse and he gallops away furiously taking Dagadu along with him, while all the members of the procession begin hunting for the horse and the bridegroom, but in vain.
The best of the lot is “Mogri’s World”, a story delving into the life of Mogri, a feisty, street smart woman who finds a sense of purpose in the unlikeliest of places – an Irani café. Mogri’s parents are construction labourers in Mumbai living a hand to mouth existence. Not believing in sticking to a family, Mogri’s father has another wife and children residing faraway in their village, as well as a mistress in another part of the city. Like her mother, Mogri grows up with this knowledge without really questioning it. But Mogri is unlike other women in many aspects. She does not care for marriage which she defines as nothing more than moving from one dingy room to another and decides to take up a job instead. Beginning as a waitress in a bar serving drinks to men who disgust her, Mogri moves on to an Irani restaurant in Town, where her work and the genteel ambience instill in her sense of peace and contentment.
In the four hundred square feet of the Light of India (the Irani café), the light played hide and seek. The knots in Mogri’s mind loosened. She felt her anxieties melting away in spite of not talking to anybody about them.
The people who came to the restaurant seemed to be there for the open air and the light. Some would sit for hours, with a bottle of beer and a book. Sometimes friends, and lovers, would sit there in silence, also for a long time, sipping endless cups of tea…There was a sort of peace here beyond the bustle of the street, so much so that the few who came in intent on making a racket were taken aback at the quiet atmosphere and left as quickly as they could, to look for another restaurant.
In “Tick Tock Friend”, Madhubani is participating in a TV quiz show which is being filmed in the studios located in a hospital. Winning the prize would lead to circumstances considerably improving for her and her father, but the prospect of the relentless barrage of questions daunts her. She experiences some solace in the hospital environs where despite people’s endless worries about health, there is also a display of compassion not found in a competitive environment.
Hospital canteens have a uniquely mellow atmosphere, the kind of greedy anticipation found in regular restaurants and canteens, the subconscious smile with which an expectant customer greets the waiter bearing a tray on which rests a dosa or a large puri – you didn’t see that here. What you saw were people filling thermoses for the patients under their care, grabbing a quick bite while wondering anxiously whether the duty doctor might come around when they were away in the canteen.
“A Truckful of Chrysanthemums” is a heartbreakingly chilling look at the mistreatment meted out to a maid who has worked at a family home for most of her life, while the story “Water” takes place during the feverish Mumbai rains, a time when roads are flooded, people abandon trains to wade in knee-length water, and traffic comes to a standstill, but there’s still an air of camaraderie all around.
In No Presents Please, then, Mumbai is not depicted as a city or a place defined by its iconic landmarks – Gateway of India, The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Jehangir Art Gallery and so on. Rather, what we see before us is Mumbai as an idea, its undying spirit and what it can enable its inhabitants to dream of and aspire towards. There are several moments when they grapple with existential anxiety, but during other times also discover kinship with strangers. It’s a city where the surreal meets the everyday and possibilities open up unexpectedly.
We find ourselves in the milieu of chawls, kholis, Irani cafes, bars, old cinema halls, local trains…the posh and affluent areas of South Bombay and Bandra find no place here. A lot of the objects depicted spur a feeling of nostalgia for the 90s era – Gold Spot bottles, Pan Parag, video cassettes, kala khatta sherbet and so on.
The torch of No Presents Please burns brightly on people living on the margins of society or ordinary people going about their day to day lives – stunt artists, bus drivers, mujra dancers, nine to five office goers to name a few. We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai.
These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.
“Whatever you might think, sir, once one has stayed in Mumbai for a while, and one comes back after a journey, there’s a strange sense of security. Look at the taxi and auto chaps here, they always return your change, however little it is. There’s something that welds us all together here.”