On a day of predictions that Mumbai would once again receive an alarming amount of rainfall, I stayed home and read a book. As it turned out, the predictions weren’t exactly accurate, but I wasn’t complaining. I dredged from the depths of the tottering to-be-read pile a novel I ought to have read much earlier: Amrita Mahale’s Milk Teeth, which has just been long-listed for the JCB Prize for Literature 2019.
An apt choice, as it turned out, because the book’s central character is the city itself. It’s mainly set in the 1990s, a pivotal decade in many respects with the explosions, the riots and the change of name, among others. All of this shows up in Milk Teeth, which also looks at the city’s growth and the way it has changed over the years. The very title, in fact, is taken from a passage that describes the aftermath of communal violence.
This is the story of Ira, a young journalist, and the two men in her life: Kartik, a bemused management consultant, and Kaiz, a self-assured yet mutable PhD student. Kartik and Ira are childhood friends, having grown up in the same building, and Kaiz is a charismatic youth whom Ira meets in the course of her work. The city of Mumbai is the tapestry against which they meet, make plans, drift together and then apart.
Milk Teeth isn’t just another love triangle, though at times it does partake of the familiar tropes of courtship rituals and subsequent obstacles. The writing has a lightness of touch accompanied by acute social observation. Under this surface, it contains a commentary on attitudes of different classes towards each other, and towards the city itself. On occasion, it brings to mind what Edith Wharton said about The House of Mirth, her own novel of manners: “A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.”
Mahale’s debut novel begins in Matunga, where the long-time residents of an old rent-controlled building, representing its ten flats, are meeting on the terrace to discuss a redevelopment deal with the landlord. Most are keen to negotiate, but Ira’s father sounds a note of dissent. As a location, the choice of Matunga is apt: it’s been referred to as the heart of Mumbai and was one of its first planned suburbs. The first few pages, then, give the impression that the novel is going to treat the building and its occupants as a microcosm of the city, following in the footsteps of other writers such as Aravind Adiga and Manil Suri.
While there is something of this in Milk Teeth, the novel has other bombil to fry. It looks back at the growing years of Ira and Kartik in Matunga, and also widens its ambit spatially to take in other Mumbai locations, from Colaba to Kandivili.
Often, changes in middle-class attitudes are mapped onto changes in surroundings. Ira notices “a shiny new bank, an ATM, a shop that sold only Western outfits, a travel agency specialising in tours to Europe.” A little later: “One could see posters advertising drivers, full-time nannies, French tutors.” There are other tart observations, too. Of the ornamented exteriors of a brand-new building, Mahale writes: “The most visible riches were the shirts, nightgowns and brassieres hung to dry in the windows.”
All of this would be notable enough, but Milk Teeth moves with equal facility from exterior to interior. The characters of Ira and Kartik, in particular, are delineated with care, and Kaiz only a little less so. Ira’s consciousness, with its shifts and advances, is the one we have the most access to in these pages. “What was her place in all this,” she wonders at one point. “Was she fated to be stuck in limbo, not contained by her roots anymore, unable to grasp the world beyond either?” In a later section, devoted to the motivations of Kartik, he thinks: “When you looked at yourself, you saw a tangle of fiction and feeling. You only began to make sense under the lingering gaze of another.”
Finding one’s self and finding one’s place: that is the warp and weft of Milk Teeth as it deftly spins the changing fabric of the city from monsoon to monsoon.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Read his columns here.
First Published: IST