Muse from Mumbai

Muse from Mumbai

Muse from Mumbai

Nothing demonstrates the flavour and, perhaps, the arrangement of this collection more than the second story, of a prospective elopement that goes right, but without an expected resolution. There are many like it - we prepare for a coming together, an awaited resolution, only to stare at a sliding apart at the end. It's as if the author is saying: 'look here, I'm sorry if you had your expectations, I just followed these characters in these places, and see what they've done!'

The first one, too, in a more interior way, launches the reader's overriding realisation that the resolution of a story (or even its craft and creation) should engage him less than its progress, its flavours, its very being. Jayant Kaikini is not just writing about places or people in Bombay, he's watching life, boarding it, feeling and telling it, smiling and moping about it. Above all, he's celebrating it by simply describing it.

And after the stories are done, the publisher springs a delightful surprise - a note from the translator, Tejaswini Niranjana, on her journey of discovery with her co-traveller and tour guide, the author. She's relieved the writing isn't "coloured by ethnic or regional origin." Nor by philosophical or political bent. There's also a discussion between her and a couple of interested parties about the book and its author.

One of the stories tells of an old woman living with a family of four. Coming in as a maid, Durgi outgrows her usefulness due to illness and age. She's now an unavoidable nuisance; to dismiss her would show the family in a bad light. Fighting suggestions like 'stop giving her food and water', and 'send her away', they keep her until a closure is inevitable. The narrative shows how a faithful detailing of life can be more effective than dramatisations. The slow, chilling movement towards a never-shown denouement places your finger on raw bone, the core of tragedy.

Everything happens within, and yet the placements and locations of each story are so vital to it. It could be any other city, and yet the spirit of Bombay shapes it like nothing else can.

Take a simple story like Gateway where interior complications, comprehension, guilt and perceptions of retribution are spurred and bewildered by ordinary events happening in almost dreamlike simplicity. Like some of the other stories, the ending here simply glides away like a boat entering high sea; you're given a world, and there's so much you know, but so much you can conjure up beyond what you're told.

The laugh-aloud humour and running vein of sensitivity in the story of a runaway bus that's soon drenched in moonlit romance, cheered by an entire village of happy conspirators. The runaway horse that transports a bridegroom to a better wedding, worlds entering worlds as though moved by an amused chess player. The amazing story of a framed portrait that fulfils a need in a heartless society, of kindness-as-usual in a realm of bitterness and conflict. An interlude in the midst of a devastating Bombay flood, families torn apart, traffic frozen, life uncertain, and there you have two men and a driver, their own drama so much a part, and yet deeper and more poignant, than what we see around them!

This isn't an author thinking up impossible situations to garnish his stories with. Pick up any newspaper, you'll see that. This is an author wading through life, holding your hand and letting you feel, with as few comments as possible. His sparseness is like a series of glimpses into loaded larders. This is an author whose wisdom shows through the gentle unfolding of simple narratives. And a translator who can read the fine lines of the Kannada original and present them to us with the temperate tread of a confident tightrope walker. The city doesn't belong to the author, nor does he to it; he lived and worked there for 20 years. His characters, too, are of a different diaspora, outsiders with an intense relationship with Bombay. The city isn't another character in the stories, but many characters, expressions of characters; somehow, they coalesce to form the impression of a unique city. Only those who've lived as intense outsiders in Bombay can fully understand this.

The author's unique blending of realism and hope can be seen in this last sentence of a story: "The pre-dawn glow from the east shone on the thousands of vehicles backed up on the road, giving the illusion that they might start moving anytime." There's always this robust romance, this tussle, this sly manoeuvring between turgid truth and miraculous metaphor.

I generally check out new authors before agreeing to review their books. At this stage, I must confess I hadn't heard of Jayant Kaikini, nor did I check him out before I agreed to this review. It's a pity I hadn't; it's fortunate that I did. For Kaikini is one of those writers who, with the right exposure, can have the world at his pages.

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