Scenes of the daily

If you liked those films around the middle class, which we were treated to in the 1970s, then you will like Karmachari.

Creative arts – writing included – often tap into immediate ambience for the subject. Viewed in terms of economic aspiration, the 70s was a bridge between the shortages which qualified the decades preceding it and the emergent affluence that is our times. It was a period when the billionaire was yet to be, millionaires were few and ‘working class’ summed up the army of employed. I am not a connoisseur of films. Speaking for myself, I was happy to avoid the Hindi films my parents grew up with. They made me sad. The high point in the theatre was everyone reaching for their handkerchief. The movies of today with their display of money, fancy for NRI wealth and muscular nation; I typically watch as a matter of entrapment, usually on the night bus from Mumbai to Bengaluru. On the other hand, those Hindi films from the 70s about the urban middle class, the working class — I can watch them any time. For a brief period, ordinary life was screen-worthy.

Karmachari was an invitation to remember this genre, particularly Mumbai and Mumbaikars from that age. The author, V P Kale ((1932-2001), was one of the most prolific writers in the Marathi language. He wrote more than 60 books. Karmachari is a collection of short stories. Many of the stories are set in that mixed zone of office environment and window to personal life, which conversation between co-workers opens up. The language is simple. Except in certain portions, where the context was too steeped in marriage and family — institutions that hold a limited fascination for me — the book zipped by. What amazed was Kale’s eye for character; his ability to notice the habits and idiosyncrasies that make people what they are. Another thing which struck me is the simplicity of the process underlying Kale’s fiction. For instance, the book’s first chapter has for the premise, conversations overheard while travelling in a jam-packed suburban train (a classic Mumbai predicament). The talk, conversation and characters are everyday’s. What isn’t everyday is Kale’s talent to sense stories therein. Films are more effortlessly remembered than books; the latter requires you to absorb text and play your own film in the head. Karmachari, I felt, was the imagination and characterisation that preceded the movies from the 70s I came to like. It was what happened when you looked around, when you had the time and desire to lift your head and do so.

Vikrant Pande’s translation of Kale’s work from Marathi to English was of huge help to me. Born in Kerala and growing up there, I failed to enjoy Malayalam literature because it came with the pride attached to knowing it. That put pressure on me to master the language. My instinct was to shut it out. I moved to Mumbai on work and found myself in a location teeming with even greater linguistic chauvinism. The pressure to learn Marathi produced the same result – I failed to pick it up. Compared to this vernacular approach steeped in pride, no pride was attached to knowing English. I learnt it comfortably, stress-free. Pande’s translation helped me visualise a Mumbai I missed knowing. It made me aware of the creativity and writing around; left me wanting to know more.

Karmachari was not without its niggling issues. In the nearly five decades that have elapsed since the 70s, both population and media have grown so much that even as we walk among people, we prefer to stay withdrawn. Our interaction skips depth; it is as mechanical and shallow as a like on Facebook. Noticing, thinking – all these have become acts of information overload, even sources of discomfort. Kale’s book appeared to be set in a period when human beings engaged with each other; a time when the appetite for engagement existed. Can the contrast between the author’s times and reader’s be a book’s weakness? Not exactly; what it created, however, was a peculiar disconnect. I felt like a time traveller peering into another world. ‘Another’ had become distinct by 2018.

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