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The poet in me is always around, says Jayant Kaikini

  • The 2018 DSC prize winner on his craft, why Mumbai is his ‘jaan’
  •  Jayant Kaikini also discussed why literary prizes are like ailments

Kaikini won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018. Courtesy: Raghu Apara
Kaikini won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018. Courtesy: Raghu Apara

Translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana, Jayant Kaikini’s stories in the collection No Presents Please cast an unnerving glance on Mumbai and its people. Kaikini’s creations are unique, albeit deeply embedded in the ordinary: a middle-aged unmarried Bengali man, a naughty boy and a quintessential stunt artist. Kaikini spoke to Lounge in an email interview days after winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018. Edited excerpts:

At the beginning of your writing career, you wrote the Kannada lyrics for an Atul Tiwari musical play in Mumbai. There, as in ‘No Presents Please’, your approach is direct, drawing the reader’s attention to the obvious. Where do you draw your style from?

No clue. I have grown up watching Yakshagana, a rich classical form of dance, drama, music, visual aesthetics with an interpretative narrative. It’s a seamless blend of all these elements. As a family, we were very fond of cinema, theatre and anything that brings people together. I was an intense reader from my college days. Maybe all this forms a mode of perception which is my own. Style is nothing but how you perceive things unconditionally.

How old were you when you moved to Mumbai?

I was 21 when I moved there in search of work, with a master’s degree in biochemistry and a copy of my maiden poetry collection in my tiny suitcase. I lived there for 24 years, before moving to Bengaluru in 2000. Since then, I don’t miss any pretext to see Mumbai meri jaan. I am a regular visitor and the city is alive in my stories.

You started as a poet, then took to writing lyrics and fiction—how do you think these worlds intersect?

I am driven by images and metaphors from the simple, day-to-day routine of life. Unclaimed portraits in a frame-maker’s shop, a dressing mirror in a scrapyard, a street kid kneeling down and peeping into a tiny rainwater pond on a deserted midnight tar road, only to touch the floating image of the moon, which breaks into pieces in small ripples—such images evoke the stories and poems untold. Fiction or non-fiction, the poet in me is always around. Writing film lyrics demands a different skill. You have to pen lines for pre-set tunes and context. It’s not your world view that is needed there. It’s the expression you are providing for the characters’ mind in that context. So there is an osmosis between all three kinds.

In the translator’s note, Tejaswini Niranjana says you asked her “not to hang on to the Mumbai peg". But even in ‘Dots And Lines’, your first collection of stories in English translation, there is a distinct sense of Mumbai. What is your relationship with translators?

It is heartening that the attachment to the story gets extended to the translators. Art binds people. Tejaswini, who translated No Presents Please, has been a friend for four decades. People ask me about the collaboration. But there was no collaboration at all. All 16 stories in this collection are picked from my Kannada anthologies. We jointly decided which ones were to be picked. That’s all. Maybe we met once to discuss retaining Mumbai expressions like khalaas, kaalipeeli. Other than that, there was no interaction at all.

As a Konkani speaker who writes in Kannada, which language do you think in?

Multilingual sensibility is a precious virtue of any Indian living in a semi-urban or urban area. Any person, if willing, can easily learn at least three languages. When in Mumbai, I spoke Konkani, which is my mother tongue, at home, Marathi with the neighbours, Hindi on local trains, English at work, and then, after returning home, wrote in Kannada. Non-Kannada characters like Dagadoo Parab, Roopak Rathod, Satyajit Datta, Tejbali and Madhubani just came in to my narratives and talked in Kannada. Isn’t it heartening? I sincerely believe that there is no one language for thought at all. It gets its language only at the moment of expression.

What is your view on literary prizes, given that you won your first at the age of 19?

They say ailments like chicken pox or measles should come and go at an early age so that we develop immunity as we grow older. Early awards just come and go before we realize what they are, since you are absorbed by so many other youthful things. An award is like a pat by bystanders on the back of a marathon runner. They might even offer him nimbu pani or throw an orange at him. He has to just gulp it and throw the empty bottle, wave at the cheering group, and keep running. If he stops to accumulate things, he will lose his rhythm.

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