No Presents Please
No Presents Please is a collection of short stories written by Jayant Kaikini, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana, about Mumbai and its inhabitants. It follows parents, lovers, bus drivers, factory workers and bar workers as they navigate every day situations and attempt to build a life in a bustling Indian metropolis. This book is subtle, there are no twist of fate endings and the humour in these stories is extremely understated. Different from other short stories I’ve read before, these narratives do not have punchy endings or really obvious moral messages, but they have an authenticity about them that makes them so relatable.
No Presents Please is the first work of translation to ever win the DSC prize for South Asian literature and I can see why. This book was faultless in its translation - to me, it read like it was written in English and that is a very impressive feat for any work of translation. More impressive still is how this collection beat Shamsie’s Home Fire and Hamid’s Exit West to the prize in 2018. If this isn’t reason enough to read No Presents Please, then I don’t know what is!
In a city that is known for its migrant population, this story is told by people who exist within the margins. They are not part of the glamour of Bollywood but instead are ordinary people with hopes and dreams and through Kaikini’s lens the reader is offered an insight into their day to day. In a city that is constantly moving, the author gets us to reflect on the lives of the people we encounter but never consider. Known for being a city that fulfils people’s dreams of fame and success, I found this stark contrast between the outside world and the private lives of the characters in the story made for a comforting read, away from the glamour you might usually associate with the city.
My favourite story of this collection was ‘Interval’, where a young man and woman meet in a cinema and decide to run away together to escape the expectations of their family. I also loved ‘Inside the Inner Room’, where a wife embraces the woman her husband has been having an affair with. I found that Kaikini captures the essence of relationships so well, especially the dynamics where there is a love lost or soured. These two stories in particular were unconventional and exploited certain tropes we often see in literature.
Kaikini requires his reader to put a lot of work into reading his fiction. As reader, you will need to make an effort to divulge the meaning of these stories. Each narrative is developed up until the point that it turns surreal and then is quickly left without a conclusive ending so as to get the reader to focus on the character development, rather than the story’s plot elements. Throughout this book he demonstrates a strict commitment to structure and pace. This can sometimes make for a frustrating read but I can appreciate why Kaikini wishes to challenge his audience. After reading Niranjana’s afterword about the translation of this novel, it made complete sense to me that Kaikini was a poet before he became a fiction writer.
There were some stories I loved, some I felt were average and some that just didn’t do it for me at all. This collection is best enjoyed when you do not read the stories in succession. They are all stand alone and there is lots to unpack in each. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in literature set in metropoles or fans of character-driven short story collections.
Thank you to Tilted Axis Press for my review copy <3