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Mithun Number Two review: Jayant Kaikini’s stories soar beyond Mumbai

Jayant Kaikini’s new collection of stories, translated from the Kannada, are comic and humane, soaring above their immediate setting

Jayant Kaikini’s stories can travel well into other languages through translation.
Jayant Kaikini’s stories can travel well into other languages through translation. (iStockphoto)

There are narratives and narratives about Mumbai, a place that holds both the promise and the threat of a quintessential Big City, in varied genres in most Indian languages, including English. This cluster of Mumbai-based, sparkling short stories by the versatile Jayant Kaikini—also a poet, playwright, lyricist and columnist in Kannada—and brilliantly translated into English by cultural theorist Tejaswini Niranjana, is a unique addition to this body of writing on the “maximum” city.

Kaikini’s earlier collection of 16 stories set in Mumbai, No Presents Please(2017), also translated by Niranjana, won the DSC award in 2018, and the prestigious American Literary Translators’ Association award in 2021. Its sequel, Mithun Number Two—And Other Mumbai Stories, yet another 16 Mumbai stories, has been published recently.  Niranjana’s translation of Jayant Kaikini’s finely-etched vignettes arrives on the cultural scene at a time when translations are being celebrated hugely.

These Mumbai narratives have been selected from Kaikini’s oeuvre of 70-odd stories, written over the last 40 years, and set in various places, including his hometown Gokarna, Dharwad, and Bengaluru. Mithun Number Two foregrounds the experience of fresh, first-generation migrants, especially young men, coming into the city from small towns.

Also Read: The poet in me is always around, says Jayant Kaikini

The vibrant city of Mumbai affords a unique vantage point for the stories. The settings are diverse—a circus, bus stand, train stations, trains, and hospitals. The characters are drawn from different professions as well: child labourers, Pundu and Tulasi, stuntmen Mithun and Rocket Tejbali, artist KK, secondhand shop-owner Muchchi Miyan, the reclusive Digoo mama, and the enterprising housekeeper Sumitra, to name a few. Mumbai’s “collective heart,” as Kaikini tellingly put it in a recent conversation, is where people try to be humane even while they are on the move all the time. As he recounts in loving detail, looking through his screenplay writer’s eye, the mundane lives of ordinary people striving to make a living on the margins of Mumbai, the common is transformed into the uncommon.

Far from the stereotypical polarity of idyllic village or small town versus the big bad city, Kaikini’s stories are not filled with nostalgia or longing for “home”. The anonymity of Mumbai is often seen as a liberating space away from the binding walls of identity typical of a small-town ethos. He sets up the two worlds in juxtaposition to shine the light of one on the other, examining both with the same rigour. 

The Master’s Son (1989) is a case in point. The relationship between the short-tempered, disciplinarian schoolteacher Narayan Master and his son Neelakantha shifts once the son migrates to Mumbai. “Setting foot on Planet Mumbai brought Neel into contact with its qualities, its smells, its responses, which turned him into a rolling stone. He became so smooth that the grammar of the city slid off him as it touched his body. …Neel, who had begun to adopt the formless, featureless character of the city suddenly began to understand his father’s lifelong and stubborn attempt to develop these same qualities in him.” This is but a peek into Neel’s existential angst in a rootless city that is as vexing as his supposedly “rooted” life in the village.

Mithun Number Two—And Other Mumbai Stories: By Jayant Kaikini, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, Westland/Eka, 264 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599
Mithun Number Two—And Other Mumbai Stories: By Jayant Kaikini, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, Westland/Eka, 264 pages, 599

Kaikini is a past master in capturing the comic, the hallmark of his stories. While this unique touch lightens up an otherwise grim situation, it equally enables a fresh, unsentimental perspective. He manages to achieve this effect by yoking together two disparate ideas into a simile. In News For Sumitra, for example, Sudhakar’s bachelors’ den, shared by two other young men, changes character with his elderly aunt Sumitra’s arrival: “The room began to look like a man who’s just left the hairdressing saloon, everything shiny but also a bit too clean.”

Kaikini is first and foremost a poet. Whatever he creates flows out of his poetic core, more so the short stories. They are intense, personal, profound, and lyrical. Like the view of the passing shore from the window frame of a boat, the stories are miniatures painted with deft, minimalist strokes. And Kaikini is a master of this form.

When you read these stories one after the other, and yet with the memory of the earlier ones alive in your mind, Kaikini’s writing begins to appear like a warm, hand-stitched, quilt with various hues and shapes, each loosely but integrally related to the other, defying the logic of a set pattern. Instead, they come across as a visual experience, a collage of human predicament. The youthful energy of his stories, palpable through the pain and passion, the dream and despair of his characters speaks to us of fleeting moments of joy and lasting marks of strife. The startling tropes and metaphors liberate the stories from the immediate confines of time and place, allowing them to soar. And soar, they do—freely, with cheer and hope, touching every human heart. For instance, the well-known filmmaker Kasaravalli, who has made a film based on Kaikini’s Milk Moustache, once said that the story could have happened in any big city. Kaikini’s stories are replete with this quality of “beyondness”, the state of being unbound, “homeless”. They travel well into other languages through translation.

Also Read: One of the great Kannada writers, as seen by his family

On the face of it, it looks as though the success of Niranjana’s translation largely rests on her astute choice of text: the stories are located in a modern urban space, and therefore the text appears easily and smoothly translated into English. Such a text, as opposed to a 13th century poetic text in medieval Kannada, surely travels more easily into English, grown rich by absorbing the Englishes of the world.

But Niranjana’s seamless translation, which assiduously avoids drawing attention to itself by providing footnotes or a glossary, hides tons of thought and care that have gone into its making. Explaining her strategies, Niranjana says she chose a spare style in English to represent the multicultural registers of the “cultural vernacular” of Mumbai, and wove her explanations within the sentence, which takes tremendous skill.

This facility could have been extended to translating with greater felicity kinship terms such as “bhava”, instead of “bro-in-law” and rendering Indian names Neelakantha as Neel. As literary texts are shaped by their author and their world, I believe, a translation needs to present that context for a better appreciation of the situatedness of the text. While the choice of a spare and smooth style has its uses, it has its limits too. These are but petty quibbles as there’s no question that Kaikini’s stories shine through Niranjana’s translucent translation.

Vanamala Viswanatha is an independent scholar and translator working with Kannada and English.

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