How Jayant Kaikini's 'No Presents Please' escapes the mundanity of most other translated Indian fiction

A new collection of stories set in Mumbai, No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini has just appeared in English translation (HarperCollins). Kaikini is one of the foremost writers of short fiction in Kannada and the translation makes it evident that he is a master of the form. Another collection was earlier published (as Dots and Lines) and the fact that Kaikini’s stories as translated never convey the sense of mundanity, as done by a significant part of translated Indian fiction (and Indian fiction in English) suggests that they stand apart. Since this factor raises questions about narration in Indian literature, it would be worthwhile to examine Kaikini’s narrative strategies instead of merely praising his book’s achievements.

About a week ago I came across an article invoking Tagore on the notion of ‘truth’ in literature and art (Manash Bhattacharjee, ‘The Animal in the Human: Tagore, Rilke, Borges and the Meaning of Art’, The Wire, 31 December 2017). “The only evidence of truth in art exists,” apparently for Tagore, “when it compels us to say ‘I see’.” The author goes on to add that art or literature is a way of seeing that dismantles the ‘essentialist tendencies of cultural knowledge’. “It allows us to see something contrary to established norms, something that is alone capable of turning the experience of ‘seeing’ into a vision.” What this suggests is that artistic truth must go beyond appearances (i.e.: mimesis) and ‘vision’ suggests mystical perception of the world rather than imitation of appearances. ‘Mimesis’ is a term used by Plato and Aristotle to mean the imitation of reality by art and literature but since reality is unimaginable without an observer, it includes subjectivity as a necessary component, which detracts from the notion of ‘artistic truth.’

A new collection of stories set in Mumbai, No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini has just appeared in English translation (HarperCollins)

A new collection of stories set in Mumbai, No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini has just appeared in English translation (HarperCollins)

‘Truth,’ by its very definition, cannot be interpreted, but works of literature are seen to gain through ‘ambiguity’ and the source of ambiguity is the division between the world as it is and its perception by the author. It can be proposed that if mimesis means the imitation of the world, literature must try to replicate its complexity, submit to interpretation as the actual world does, and not presume to offer the ‘truth’.  Still, Tagore’s notion of the ‘truth’ is consistent with Indian poetics/ dramaturgy which talks about art/performance as being ‘imitation of a special kind’, truer than sensed reality.  This article is about Kaikini’s stories but we understand them better when we look at how Tagore’s own fiction demonstrates the meaning of ‘artistic truth’ as opposed to mimesis. Here is a delightful passage from a translation (by Lopa Banerjee) of Nastanirh, which Satyajit Ray filmed as Charulata (1964):

In a household infested with riches and boredom, Charulata continued to live, bloom like the flower that could not bear any fruit, not as a necessity, but an embellishment in the midst of her effortless, prolonged days and nights. There was no lack of abundance in the household, but only an overpowering emptiness that she knew as her own. Any other wife would have fought with her husband, enacted a few dramas, the quirky idiosyncrasies of conjugal politics transcending and threatening all limits and boundaries of domesticity. Charu, however, was not fortunate enough to indulge in such acts. It became increasingly difficult for her to penetrate the thin layers of paper which wrapped her husband’s attention.”

Since metaphor plays a significant part in literary strategy one could consider the above passage in the light of the metaphors it employs. ‘Infested with riches and boredom’, ‘bloom like the flower that could not bear fruit’ and ‘the quirky idiosyncrasies of conjugal politics’ are all exquisite but they also have another thing in common, which is that they are non-contextual, i.e.: they strive for universality and could be from any culture. ‘Penetrate the thin layers which wrapped her husband’s attention’ appears different in as much as Charulata’s husband runs a newspaper and the metaphor invokes it but its contextuality is still  limited to the story, and that aspect of the story could relate to any society (in any age) in which paper and print have a role to play. The striving after universality is also suggested by the fact that it is difficult to picture the metaphors. It can be argued that these aspects of the story take it away from mimesis, which is attentive to appearance and context, and we may gather that Tagore is striving after ‘truth’, which also explains the magisterial viewpoint of the narration.

Kaikini’s No Presents Please announces itself as set in contemporary Mumbai which both creates an immediate context and suggests ‘picturables’. The stories are about people from various backgrounds but who are less than well to do and the very first one (my favourite) which bears the title ‘City Without Mirrors’ is about an incorrigible bachelor who receives an offer of marriage from a woman (who was once briefly married), through her elderly father. Here is the woman as the protagonist imagines her:

Her face has suddenly aged, the hair at her parting turned grey. She has lost the right to sulk like a child. She daydreams about Pakya who sells paper lanterns or Kekoo who runs the cassette shop. Slowly like a book on the corner of a lower shelf, a book no one reaches out for, she has acquired her mother’s posture and her mother’s silence.”

One could propose that the metaphors here are more picturable — like the ageing woman acquiring her mother’s posture the way an untouched book similarly acquires another shape in a bookshelf. They are also related to the contemporary life of an educated, once well-read class which has got out of the habit of reading. The metaphors also suggest that the narrator does not have a lofty viewpoint but is from the same class. The virtue of the passage is in the observational detail; it is trying to catch fleeting appearances rather than become preoccupied with unchanging truths. Its picturability also makes the writing less vulnerable to the quality of the translation. No Presents Please is translated by highly regarded translation theorist Tejaswini Niranjana who has deliberately disregarded seeking elegance (e.g.: ‘There didn’t seem to be anyone bothered enough to persuade or pressurise him to get married’) but the story does not seem to suffer. In the elegant passage from Tagore’s story quoted above, in contrast, replacing the clause ‘infested with richness and boredom’ with ‘filled with richness and boredom’ — which might also be authentic — would harm it.

Mimesis, it is mistakenly believed, is a superficial description of appearances but Kaikini’s stories, which get their greatest effects through simply describing (situations as well as emotions) and not trying to pontificate, shows how powerful the strategy can become. While admitting that his daughter was once married for two days, the old man Sanjeev Sen produces a medical certificate to affirm that his daughter’s virginity is still intact. Here is the passage immediately after the description of the event:

After Sen had gone towards the station, Satyajit did not return home, but walked furiously in the narrow lanes of the suburbs. He was aghast at the cruelty of a situation in which in which an old man had to speak to a complete stranger about the proof of virginity of his nearly forty-year-old daughter. Sen’s trusting helplessness, the wrinkles under his white eyebrows appeared in front of Satyajit’s eyes. Was it possible for Sanjeev Sen to utter that phrase only in English? It didn’t seem the first time he had spoken those words. Having uttered them in front of many strangers, he seemed to have lost any sense of pain or humiliation and become quite impassive.”

What is most poignant in this segment is the old man trying to distance himself from the horror of his daughter’s situation by using English language terms, but Kaikini relies only on his observations of how English is used by people who normally speak in the vernacular — to get his emotional effects. Here, it is not the author pronouncing upon a condition (as in Tagore’s story); Kaikini allows his character to do the feeling and the wondering about Sanjeev Sen’s social situation and without intruding. This again may be understood as mimesis without an effort to impose a ‘truth’ upon the given material.

As I have argued, mimesis, since it strives for complexity and not for the ‘truth’, invites interpretation and it is for this reason that a story that retains its mystery is valued in literature, something that does not often happen in Indian fiction where the mechanics of the story and its purpose are usually laid bare. ‘City without Mirrors’ does house such interpretability but another story — ‘Toofan Mail’ — demonstrates what I mean more strongly. This story is about a film stuntman Toofan who relates a childhood memory to explain his name. His father never lived with the family, but when he was a little boy his mother would wake him up sometimes at around 4 am and the two would then catch a local at Andheri and travel to Dahisar in the outskirts and wait for the ‘Toofan Mail’ to rattle through. As the train sped through the station, his father — who was on the train — would jump out with a bag tied to his stomach, and roll over. The train halted at Dadar, but it was at Dahisar that his father got off the speeding train. His mother and he would keep their distance from the father, who would throw the bag towards them to be picked up, then standing up and limping away with two men. This had happened several times until his father stopped appearing. The protagonist never understood what this was about and his mother had eventually died. At some point, he decided to change his name from ‘Munna’ to ‘Toofan’ in memory of this recurring childhood experience.

What makes this episode memorable although it contains no recognisable artistic truth and what we attach value to, is a mystery which could mean many things, the recurring occurrence at Dahisar. In his great essay ‘The Storyteller’ Walter Benjamin describes a story told by Herodotus about the Egyptian king Psammenitus after his defeat by the Persians, which demonstrates the nature of true storytelling which survives the multitude of explanations around a tale. “The value of information,” Benjamin tells us, “does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.”

The political or moral conclusions offered by much Indian fiction as ‘artistic truth’ expends itself because its thrust is so transparent; it is here that Jayant Kaikini’s mimetic strategies become relevant because his stories pay attention to the world ‘as it is’ — instead of overlooking appearances for profound truths.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2018 10:59:21 IST

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