Jayant Kaikini is one of the foremost storytellers in his native Kannada. No Presents Please is a collection of sixteen of his stories (translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana) set in Mumbai. The stories, mainly written in the 1990s have a slightly vintage feel (in one scene characters wave around video cassettes) but the characters are timeless and the city they inhabit and their relationship to it are wonderfully observed.
The stories themselves are a mixed bag of striving, pathos, longing, humour and survival. Each focusses on one or two characters and their relationship but also their relationship to the city. Nowhere is this better on show than the opening story Interval in which the ticket collector at a cinema has organised to elope with a woman who he only meets when she comes to the movies. Bollywood movies and the characters’ relationship to them and their stars are often in the background (or foreground) of other stories – Toofan Mail’s main character is a stuntman and in Water, the action is punctuated by a group on a pilgrimage to the home of star Amitabh Bachchan.
There is plenty of pathos here. Kaikini brings a deep understanding and compassion to the lives of the people in his stories. But also a capacity to see the humorous side. There are some laugh out loud moments in this book, no more so than when a dodgily acquired horse gallops away from a wedding procession with the reluctant bridegroom on its back in Dagadu Parab’s Wedding Horse.
But the star of this book if the city of Mumbai from the Victoria Terminal to the Irani restuatrants and cafes to the ageing movie theatres. Kaikini describes it all:
Like a soundless spider without any great expectations, Indranil wove his small world around the Opera House theatre. The night streets, the local trains, the colourful curtains of the rooms of the naachwalis that one could see from Kennedy Bridge, the Anantashram rice-and-fish plate, the round aluminium boxes containing film reels – these were the strands of his web. (Opera House)
No Presents Please is a compelling and engaging collection which demonstrates why Kaikini has the reputation he has. In this series of quick sketches he brings a range of complex characters to life and over the course of these stories he exposes the spirit of the city of Mumbai.