Creative Journeys: Jayant Kaikini

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Date: March 23, 2018 

How often does one get to listen to an author for a full two hours, soon after reading and loving his work? Well, I got lucky this evening, when I choose to attend the event hosted by Toto Funds the Art, at British Library, Bangalore.

Only a few weeks ago did I read Kaikini’s stories translated into English. What stories those are! Written about 20-30 years ago, from a city that holds the whole country in awe, each of those stories is about Bombay. Each of it stands out, not just for the characters and the situations they are in, but how the city holds them all together. Recently in a masterclass at IIHS, Gautam Bahn emphasized on the need to write from cities, rather than about cities. Well, Kaikini does just that. The city in his stories is not merely a setting or background. One can’t port these stories to another, say a Bangalore or a Hyderabad. I’ve never been to Mumbai, but these stories give me a feeling of being there – as if I’ve taken the city into me, through all my sensory organs.  

If and when I visit Mumbai, more than looking for a Gateway of India or a Juhu Beach, I’ll be on a search for the older restaurants with mirrors, rain and sun painting their moods. I’m going to look out for that half-made fly-over where lovebirds sneak in. And if at all, I end up at Juhu beach, the sea of people who make Mumbai the city it is, will be my fascination. Because, in some ways, through his writing, Kaikini has taught me how to take it all in.

Today, he taught me a lot more. Some of the nuggets of wisdom from his gurus and him:

Your story got the prize. Not you. – Yashwant Chittal

In the days of joblessness in Bombay, when Jayant realized he won first prize for a story, a decent Rs 500, he ran up to his Guru, Yashwant Chittal, at the other end of the city to share the news. Chittal, having known the information already, praised him, with a gentle reminder that it was his story that won the prize, not him. Writing happens, despite you and it is beyond you – Jayant repeated this line often in today’s talk.

Dreams and stories come from the same hard disk inside you.

Emphasizing that a storyteller needn’t carry a book to note all that he observes, unlike a journalist, Kaikini reckons absorbing and experiencing the moment rather than watching it from a distance would help a writer write better. More like, “withness” than a witness. Like we dream involuntarily every night, without any control on topic, setting and characters, we also write – despite us.

I don’t write what I know. I write to know. – Yashwant Chittal

Elaborating the above point and quoting Chittal again.

The writer is like a swimmer trying to learn swimming and also trying to cross the river at the same time. – Kaikini

When you plunge into writing, you don’t know a lot of things. But your mind is a beautiful organ, which knows which of your experiences to put into the story. Even for the writer, just like the reader, it is a process of discovering what’s going to happen. 

As singers go to Gurus to learn singing, writers can go to books written over the ages. – Kaikini

Books are all the gurus you need, and they are non-interfering too. If a particular guru (book) is not working for you, you can always keep it aside – no scope of taking offence! 😉

What you write is REAL! – Kaikini

He gave two wonderful anecdotes to illustrate further.

1. Chittal thought of Dadar as an unhappy memory. Why? Because Nirmala died there. Who Nirmala? She’s one of the characters in one of his novels. But that character in that novel commits suicide in some other place. Then, why Dadar?

While writing this particular chapter of the novel, Chittal was travelling from Hyderabad to Bombay, and by the time it reached Dadar, he was writing the lines of Nirmala’s suicide. When he lifted his head to look out at the station, he was overwhelmed by the emotion. Dadar and Nirmala’s death continued their association in his mind forever.

2. Raj Kumar commissioned Kaikini to write a film script based on Shivaram Karanth’s book. The book had a part where the hero flees away because he’s forced into marrying a blind woman. Kaikini couldn’t replicate the same in the movie, because the hero in our films doesn’t run away – come what may! So, how to solve the problem? Rajkumar gave a day to let Kaikini think.

The next morning, he came back with a solution – since the story was set in the pre-independence era, he changed the visual disability to under-age. This way, the hero’s objection to marriage could have its base in anti-child marriage.

Raj Kumar responded to the change, “You did a great job. Otherwise, that woman would have faced so many difficulties as a blind woman. Good that she is no more blind.” 

Point to be noted here is that, both Chittal and Raj Kumar, know they were talking only about characters, which don’t have an existence beyond the pages or screens. But the creators own the characters so much that they start feeling real. 

Kaikini kept repeating, regardless of the source of the story, either from experience or imagination, for a writer, the story is real. Everything in it is real. 

The mainstream critics didn’t seem to have taken him seriously. “They still say I’m a promising writer”, he said jokingly. “In a way, that also helped me. Had they liked me, they would have put me into one (literary)movement or the other. It allowed me to be more myself”, he said on a serious note.

He has written in Kannada for a good 20-30 years without much response. And today, thanks to English translations, he’s finding his readers in the next generation and across the languages. In the few minutes I got to talk to him, I promised him that I’d read his works in Kannada one day, for sure.

My resolve to write stories in Telugu (regardless of the response or lack of it) only got stronger, thanks to this beautiful evening.

Update as of Sept, 2020: I’ve started reading Kaikini in original, thanks to enormous generosity of a good friend teaching me the language. A detailed note on that experience, sometime soon.

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