MILK TEETH by Amrita Mahale
Matunga the year is 1997, a muggy evening in late April.
The milky clouds of the past weeks had curdled into thick cheese, blotting out the evening sun, raising hopes for a spell of unseasonal rain. The air felt slightly stale. Being outside was like taking an evening local train cramped up against a mouth breather.
When I started reading Amrita Mahale’s book ‘Milk Teeth’, a wave of nostalgia swept me back to a monsoon day in 1973. I remember that I used to keep awake after a late-night bout of asthma, sometimes till the morning dawned with the clanging of the milk bottles, and Bombay slowly woke as I slowly moved towards my bed. The mornings in Bombay were always grey and by 7 am the road was already populated with people, office goers, and the frenzy increased as the peak hour approached. Another passage from the book –
A light sleeper at best, Mumbai opened its eyes by 5 a.m. to the arrival of milk trucks on the streets. Local trains started to ply around the same time, carrying fisherwomen, flower sellers, and sleepy revellers up and down the arteries of the metropolis. And along these arteries, Mumbai awoke in slow waves, the farthest suburbs stirring first, readying themselves for the long battle that was the day ahead.
At times there was nothing to say about Mumbai. More often than not, work had become one routine story braided into another, this meeting and that scheme, delays and excuses.
To me it is still Bombay, and so will it be remembered by people of my generation. It is a relationship, an intimacy that is shared by everyone who has lived there. You may choose to hate it, but you will still love it with all its shades of grey. My time, of course, goes back more than a decade before the author was born, but it is the skill with she has been able to capture the passing years. Matunga of 1967 had yet to give way to vertical growth but with the growing population the movement to the suburbs had already begun and I did stay in one such suburb Chembur. Her description of Matunga, King Circle, the South Indian restaurants and the most important of all – the Irani Café famous for its plate of pastries and the distinctive Chai, where one could spend time meeting up with friends, evoked memories of evenings of many a summer and monsoon spent there. Thanks to her brilliance as a writer she has brought to life ‘Bombay’ (Bombay became Mumbai after 1995).
The story itself is simple, at the same time her probing of the psyche of the main characters makes the reader identify and empathize with them. there is no melodrama and she has maintained her integrity as a writer throughout.
In the beginning, I was intrigued by the title of the book Milk Teeth. The first inkling of what the author was trying to convey comes out through the following passage –
So for most practical purposes, the communal violence that started after the Babri Masjid fell came to an end after the blasts, but the spell of peace that followed felt like hate was only shedding its milk teeth.
For me, I have understood it on a broader canvas – the shedding of one’s frailties and emerging as a stronger individual who has accepted his/her perceived aberrations and moved on towards living and finding authenticity in life. The character of Kartik has been handled with great sensitivity and is perhaps the highlight of the book, a brilliant individual struggling with his own ghosts. The most telling passage in the book is towards the end, where the author leaves her mark as a powerful interpreter of human emotions through metaphorical images -
The receding wave reveals the debris the sea had kept hidden. Scattered on the rocks under our feet are plastic bottles, snack wrappers, a soiled diaper. Refuse that the water had obscured like love does. The walls, Kartik called this spot. The name sounds familiar, but I am not sure where I have heard it. In a magazine, perhaps? I feel the unpleasant tug of a sour memory. Ananya comes to mind, but why? The walls. The walls. In the distance, large oil tankers stand still. Closer, fishing boats bob up and down, anchored but still moving. It’s ten past six, sunset is at least ten minutes away. The Walls. Oh.
Kartik has changed his mind. ‘Ira,’ he begins, ‘I am sorry.’
To talk more about the book or the storyline will be unfair to the author. I leave it to whoever reads this review to buy and read the book in its entirety.
With her first book, Amrita has shown her talent as a writer who I am sure will find her own place on the Indian literary scene. Wishing her all the best.