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Mumbai mosaic

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on January 05, 2018
Tough lives: No Presents Please shows a Mumbai full of struggle and bare homes, of families squeezed tight into the single room of a chawl. Photo: Prashant Nakwe

Tough lives: No Presents Please shows a Mumbai full of struggle and bare homes, of families squeezed tight into the single room of a chawl. Photo: Prashant Nakwe

No Present Please; Jayant Kaikini; Translated by Tejaswini Niranjana; Fiction; Harper Collins; ₹350

No Present Please; Jayant Kaikini; Translated by Tejaswini Niranjana; Fiction; Harper Collins; ₹350

Jayant Kaikini captures the stories of people we see without seeing every single day and, through them, creates the picture of a city that is unmistakably Mumbai

In the dark belly of Malhar Cinema, Nandkishore Jagtap, alias Nandu, plays the part of battery-torch boy. He turns off the lights, shines his torch on tickets and, after three hours, opens the door “to let the flood of people out of their world of dreams”. On the screen, heroes sing, ride horses and say to the heroine, “Let us run away somewhere”. Intoxicated by the coy beauties and promises of eternal love, Nandu decides to enact his own elopement.

On Lal Bahadur Shastri Road, a wedding procession wends its way noisily. First is the brass band, then the boys with their “shiny, teenage moustaches”. Then the middle-aged men in tight t-shirts, the dancing drunks and the women’s group. And amidst all this, the bridegroom, on a skeletal dark-brown horse, his face covered with strings of jasmine. In a few minutes, a motorbike will screech, the horse will run away carrying the bridegroom with him. And Dagadu Parab will be thrust into a new life with a new bride.

In the basement of Nanavati Hospital in Vile Parle, Madhubani is getting ready to take part in a quiz programme. Everywhere, children are brushing up on their facts. Who is the US President who cultivated peanuts? In which sport is the term Chinaman used? The quizmaster arrives, wearing a colourful coat and speaking with feigned enthusiasm. He quizzes Madhubani about the Bhopal gas tragedy. In the midst of the bright lights, cameras and clapping audience, Madhubani recalls that poison-filled night, the motionless bodies of Jyotsna bhabhi and little Sejal, and she is overcome by deep silence and a sense of futility.

These are some of the fragments that go into the luminous mosaic fashioned by Kannada poet, writer and lyricist Jayant Kaikini. No Presents Please is a collection of 16 short stories set in Mumbai and beautifully translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. Dense with details and gentle observations, these stories explore the lives of people we see without seeing, every single day. The bachelor who survives on food from street carts and arranges his shaving cream, toothpaste, brush and comb on the window ledge. The bus driver who is determined to make it to his village for Ganpati, where he has been promised a big role in the village play. The families squeezed so tight into the single room of a chawl that they feel “as if they were sleeping standing up, like in the local train”.

Together these bits and pieces — some bright, some dark, some jagged, some smooth — fit together to create the picture of a city that is unmistakably Mumbai. This is a Mumbai full of struggle and homes with little more than a single cupboard, some utensils and a threadbare mattress. But it is also a city of survivors and the kindness of strangers. Of endless cups of chai and hidden love stories.

Each story has its protagonists, teetering on the edge of life-altering decisions. But while the spotlight shines on them, it also picks out the people and moments at the periphery. A grubby little street boy who comes along the footpath, kicking an empty Pepsi can, making it skim along without touching the ground. The colourful windows of the buildings alongside Kennedy Bridge, from where the sound of the sarangi and the anklets of dancers can be heard. The chawl-dweller who catches stray cats and sells them to pharmaceutical companies. The bride and bridegroom, struggling to frame their wedding invitation card, who stop at a kala khatta vendor in the merciless sun and place their order:

They asked for a ‘by-two’. Popat was of the firm belief that a ‘by-two’ yielded more of the beverage than one full glass.

Asavari shrieked that she didn’t want ice. She believed that the more ice there was, the less juice the glass held.

It is in these ruses and encounters that Mumbai leaps to life. Just as it is in the casual chutter-putter of mujra dancers and tea vendors; bus drivers meeting at the depot; and cooks in the Light of India Irani restaurant, that the city can be heard:

In the kitchen, Thambi and Badebhai, both past 40, still engaged in constant banter, keeping everyone’s spirits high.

“Badebhai should have been working in the Taj Mahal Hotel. By mistake he’s ended up here making omelettes,” Thambi would say.

“Thambi fell into a barrel of tar one day. That’s why he’s this colour,” Badebhai would needle him.

Kaikini examines these small but brave lives with deep sympathy. He captures their voices with unerring humour; conjures up their world with exquisite precision; and recreates the strange blend of anonymity and intimacy that is so characteristic of this teeming megapolis by the sea.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Shy Supergirl. Her latest book What Maya Saw is now in bookstores

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Published on January 05, 2018
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