No Presents Please
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No Presents Please

Jayant Kaikini, Tejaswini Niranjana

Winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, Jayant Kaikini is one of India’s most celebrated short-story writers.

For readers of Jhumpa Lahiri and Rohinton Mistry, as well as Lorrie Moore and George Saunders, here are stories on the pathos and comedy of small-town migrants struggling to build a life in the big city, with the dream world of Bollywood never far away.

Jayant Kaikini’s gaze takes in the people in the corners of Mumbai - a bus driver who, denied vacation time, steals the bus to travel home; a slum dweller who catches cats and sells them for pharmaceutical testing; a father at his wits end who takes his mischievous son to a reform institution.

In this metropolis, those who seek find epiphanies in dark movie theaters, the jostle of local trains, and even in roadside keychains and lost thermos flasks. Here, in the shade of an unfinished overpass, a factory-worker and her boyfriend browse wedding invitations bearing wealthy couples' affectations - ‘no presents please’ - and look once more at what they own.

Translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana, these resonant stories, recently awarded the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, take us to photo framers, flower markets, and Irani cafes, revealing a city trading in fantasies while its strivers, eating once a day and sleeping ten to a room, hold secret ambitions close.

Review

Mumbai is the central, beloved character of Jayant Kaikini’s story collection, yet plenty of space remains to fall in love with the protagonists of each story. In No Presents Please, the stories are drawn from Kaikini’s vast oeuvre, spanning the early 1980s to the 2000s, and translated from the Kannada, consciously as a body of work, by Tejaswini Niranjana.

In the first story, ‘Interval’, we are dropped into a small vignette, as narrated by two characters who only acknowledge each other through the language of Bollywood flms. In wonderful shorthand, as in a script, we scroll through a series of encounters which set each character on a path that they assume is shared while each is actually caught entirely in their own narrative, the star of their own movie.

The ease with which Kaikini seems to pluck individuals out of the vast city of Mumbai and follow them along for a little while brings an intimacy to each and every story while retaining the sense of a city that seems to grow and grow.

I am still thinking of the three men in a taxi during a food, drawn together as strangers by small acts of kindness, and all distracted still by what they will need to return to in their individual lives after this moment out of time.

No Presents Please won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the frst book in translation to do so. It is a wonderful opportunity for English language readers to experience some of Kaikini’s beautiful writing for the frst time. I’m very glad I did.


Marie Matteson is a book buyer at Readings Carlton.

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