A season pass for the Mumbai local train network. The lunchbox, traveling from home to office and back. Orphaned, undelivered letters lying in a post office. Over the years, the dedications in Jayant Kaikini’s books have been addressed, not to people, but the worn, crumpled objects that mark a person’s journey through time. “I dedicated one of my books to the bachelor apartments I lived in. Before I married and moved into a proper home, I had 13 addresses in Bombay,” says the Kannada writer and poet, some of whose short stories set in the metropolis are now available in an English translation by Tejaswini Niranjana, No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories (HarperCollins).
The stories show a similar, transformative attention to the ordinary — a thermos flask left behind at a movie theatre or the mirrors in a barbershop, in whose reflection strangers gather and scatter again. “I am an ordinary person too. And I find that the ordinary is extraordinary. Like the line drawings of artist KK Hebbal or RK Laxman’s cartoons. Just two-three lines but very forceful. I thought Bombay people were like that — not murals but line drawings,” he says.
The urban experience has been explored relatively recently in Kannada literature by modern writers such as Yashwant Chittal and Shantinath Desai. And that city has been Bombay, not Bengaluru, still a rookie compared to the old guard. Kaikini, who calls himself a “Chittal chauvinist”, belongs to this newer strain of writing. “But while Chittal’s writing always had as a reference point the village he had left behind, there is no such thing in Kaikini’s writing. Even the names of his characters do not allow the Kannada reader to slot them by caste or village. He has freed them. And that can only happen in a city like Bombay,” says writer and friend Vivek Shanbhag.
Kaikini arrived in Bombay in 1976, a young biochemist seeking a job. He lived there for 24 years. The stories in No Presents Please reveal not just empathy, but a writer in communion with the city’s diverse geographies and histories, and with what Kaikini calls “its collective mind”. The characters in this book range across class and ethnicities — from prostitutes to cinema ushers and bar workers. “Ours is a society where maybe 90 per cent of the people are marginalised in one way or the other. In Bombay, you are in proximity with them,” he says.
In the way the city’s people moulded their lives to the lack of space, he saw a “minimalist, almost spiritual” way of life. “Small tiny houses, where you don’t accumulate things. One bucket, one trunk, four hangers, two vessels, one small kerosene stove — even god has to do with a small space in Bombay. He is above the fridge or in the corner of a cupboard,” says Kaikini. Even in the city’s Hindi, Kaikini found the impress of an egalitarian thought. “There is no aap in that Hindi, everyone is tereko and mereko. Even the biggest boss of a company is spoken to by a worker like this. That too liberated me,” he says.
Kaikini grew up in Gokarna, a temple town on the Karnataka coast, “where god was a dost.” The Uttara Kannada region is home to the yakshagana tradition, and Kaikini recalls running out of the house at the sound of the chande (drums) announcing a performance. Or, watching a regular man — a friend or a vegetable vendor or a teacher — transform into characters from the epics. “They would sit before a small mirror wearing a lungi and banian, and paint themselves. As a child, I would think that the yakshas were emerging from the mirror,” he says.
His father was Gourish Kaikini, a stalwart journalist, litterateur and critic, a radical humanist who introduced Kannada readers to Karl Marx. He was also a man interested in many things, especially cinema. “His schoolteacher’s salary was meagre. But every week, we would watch a film. I would go and borrow some money from the grocer’s to buy tickets. At the end of the month, against our account was written: ½ kg sugar, ½ kg toor dal, etc., and also cinema: Rs 5,” says Kaikini.
Though he never modelled himself on his father, Kaikini found himself drawn to poetry when he moved to Kumta to study. His first book of poems was published in 1974, when he was 19 years old. It was inspired by AK Ramanujan and the poetics of the image. “When I first read Ramanujan, I could not find a meaning for his poems — but something happened to me. One of the senior critics in Kannada, Keerthinath Kurtakoti, took me aside one day in Dharwad’s famous publishing house, Manohar Ghrantamala. He just read poem after poem to me. It was like listening to a classical music concert. It created something in me,” he says.
That finds resonance in the experience of reading Kaikini, who is also a unique image-builder. In A Spare Pair of Legs, a boy new to the city sees child labourers everywhere around him — serving tea, washing dishes, cleaning tables — and imagines that this army of boys “held this entire city up on their thin hands, as though they were holding up Govardhan Hill itself”. “He has a very original way of seeing the world. Some people have tried to imitate it, but it just doesn’t work,” says Shanbhag, who worries that Kaikini’s humour, especially, might be lost in the best of translations.
“Details stay with me,” agrees Kaikini, when we meet at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru. Young men and women interrupt us often to request a selfie with Kaikini; some just want to tell him how his words — and not necessarily his stories — have moved them. For about a decade now, he has been a popular lyricist in Kannada films, a role he takes seriously because “music is a space where language can breathe”. For a writer with such a substantial following, Kaikini is remarkably convivial. He laughs easily and often — and at himself, more than the world. “I am still considered a promising writer by critics,” he had joked at an event a few weeks ago.
Right now, an image has snagged at his eyes — a tractor lumbering on the city’s roads. “All I can think is that it should be in a north Karnataka farmland. But it’s being used to carry a peasant family, who have migrated to the city, to a construction site. It’s a very disturbing sight,” he says. How, if and when that image will find its way into his writing is an alchemy he doesn’t wish to analyse. “It will come on its own. That’s why I enjoy writing. Because something happens in spite of us… There are writers who plan their writing, but I don’t. If I know how it ends, why write at all?” he says.
The second English translation of his work, he says, does not make much of a difference to him — because “the Kannada world is my world. Whatever I have to do, I will do here only.” But the many thoughtful responses to the book make him wonder: why wasn’t there such a critical response in Kannada? “I don’t mean awards, which I have had enough. But criticism is a creative extension of your attempts, it creates a larger space to understand your work,” he says.
In a note in the book, Niranjan wonders if the Kannada tradition of writers-as-public- intellectuals has made it difficult for a sustained critical engagement with Kaikini’s work, which is not explicitly political. Kaikini does not quite agree. “Language is public property. The moment you work in language, to understand something, using a language that is spoken by millions, you are connecting to everybody. The resonance of the conscience of the society will be in that author’s work. He does not need to take strong political stands,” he says.
Kaikini surmises that, like Chittal or the poet KV Thirumalesh, his writing fell on a critical blind spot because he was not allied to the influential movements in Kannada literature. “When new movements come, whether it is Navya (a modernist movement) or the Bandaya (which emphasised the social voice of literature), it brings with it its own opinion makers, who come with an ideology. But writers like us work in isolation. When there is no movement you ally yourself with, criticism doesn’t have the role of taking the writer to the people, to make him understood,” he says.
But working away from the Kannada literary establishment was also liberating. “I was free to write what I want, and I did,” he says. The reward has been in the form of a newer generation of readers. “When I go to schools and colleges to talk to young people, I realise they get me with an open mind,” he says.
The writer of 13 collections of stories, poetry and essays, Kaikini has never written a novel. “I am a very restless man. I wrap up a story in maybe five days and I don’t revise. Maybe novel writing needs a lot of discipline. It’s a bit like a community marriage — 100 couples to track together,” he says, laughing.
After years of working as a chemist in Bombay, he returned to Bengaluru with a job in a television network. When that door shut, he edited a popular literary magazine and then went on to produce a 32-episode series on Kuvempu in his centenary year. But after four decades, his first allegiance is to writing. “I think only when I write. I evolve only when I am writing,” he says. “Otherwise, I am just caught up in a mundane existence like anyone else.”