Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale
URL for program recording : facebooklive
- Kusum Gokarn.
I enjoyed listening to today’s Book Club program on the discussion of the book Milk Teeth written by Amrita Mahale.
I have grown up and married in Mumbai so I enjoyed the reference to Matunga and 14th Rd Khar .These areas are very familiar to me.
My maternal uncle Guru Dutt (Padukone) the famous film director and actor lived with his parents in Tejokaya Park Society in Matunga during his growing years.It was close to Five Gardens where I used to go to play with Guru Dutt’s younger siblings. I used to visit them on week ends with my mother.
Guru Dutt’s sister Lalita Lajmi’s wedding took place in a wedding hall close to Five Gardens.
Amrita’s description of children playing on the jungle gym etc sounded so familiar to me. But she has given a serious turn to the incident of the squabble between the educated boys and the non English speaking slum boys.
My in-laws, the Gokarns, had their bungalow Chandra Bhuwan on 14th rd. in Khar, Mumbai. Later it was demolished and flats have come up in its place but the name remains the same.
Madhukar and I sold our flat and came to stay in Golden Nest in Kalyani Nagar Pune.
Moreover, right opposite our Chandra Bhuwan there was Vasant Kunj in which one Mahale family stayed. Later their bungalow was also converted into flats and some of the brothers moved out elsewhere. I wonder whether Amrita Mahale is related to those Mahales.
Surprised to hear that Satish’s grandfather also had a house on 14rh rd Khar.
I enjoyed listening to the presentation of Amrita Mahale’s book of fiction by the author interviewed by Mohini. They were both very eloquent.
The title Milk Teeth recalls one’s childhood memories. But the author has gone further to write about a young pair Ira and Kartik growing up and falling in love. Further a love triangle develops.
The triangular love story sounds typical of most novels. The only peculiarity is the bringing in of a gay character.
Amrita has described the protagonist Kartik as a gay in a casual manner without derogating him as being marginalised.
The novelty may be in the author’s style of writing , the realistic description of the locality of the suburb of Matunga in Mumbai and the imaginative portrayal of the fictitious characters. Since I have not read the book I cannot comment on it.
During the discussion that followed , Tazeen appreciated Amrita’s easy style of writing and the wide canvas of characters that she has portrayed , somewhat like in the novels of Charles Dickens.
Mohini appreciated Amrita’s clear-sighted description of Mumbai and the ambience of the middle class society, without any glamorization.
Amrita asserted that she would like the main characters in her book, Ira and Kartik, to be seen as ‘archetypes and not stereotypes’ of middle class society.
As Amrita mentioned, her novel Milk Teeth is about the growing up of the young protagonists in a state of transition in a changing world , their coming of age around the period of 1990’s.
Mohini appreciated the absence of any physical description of the main character Ira. It is only through a brief remark by a minor character that we learn she is attractive in a conventional way, “a light eyed hottie”. Amrita gradually reveals the other protagonist Kartik as gay.
Mohini read out the Epigraph – a delightful verse extract which humorously underlines the struggle for space in Mumbai.
I enjoyed Amrita’s reference to Udipi restaurant where the customer is brusquely told by the waiter to ‘hurry up’ , contrasted with the typical Irani Cafe in which ‘loitering’ is allowed by the owner and the waiters!
Personally I laughed over the reference to Ira climbing onto a water tank because I used to do the same during my childhood, tomboy that I was!
Mohini appreciated particularly the characterization of Ananya and Pinkesh – neither of them likeable but both very distinctive. Snide, nasty, malicious.
Kudos to Amrita for the deep research she had done over a decade before writing her debut book. She also made three drafts before publishing it. I appreciate her diligence and tenacity.
Hearty congrats to this young upcoming author .
I wish Amrita Mahale all the best of success in her forthcoming second novel.
- Sunanda Mehta
The Pune Book club last Sunday engaged in a most scintillating session as it discussed the much-acclaimed `Milk Teeth’ with the author of the book Amrita Mahale herself in attendance. Steered ably by Mohini Khot, the session saw Amrita, an aeronautical engineer turned writer, taking the members through the journey of her debut novel set against the Mumbai of the 90s, an era of both tension and transformation.
The novel thus deals as much with human emotions as it does with the relations of the main characters to this city. Talking of how she has also taken inspiration from the people in her life while building up the personalities of Ira, Kartik and Kaiz, Amrita revealed that it took her four years and as many drafts to come up with the final version. The novel, replete with flashbacks, human insecurities and coming of age romance is a stirring saga of love, betrayal and the complexities of the human heart. It is also to the author’s credit that her portrayal of gays has been handled both sensitively and sensibly in the novel.
With many questions and observations from the large number who attended the session, it was a delightful evening devoted to Milk Teeth, Mahale and Mumbai .
- Runa Mukherjee
Discussion on MILK TEETH by AMRITA MAHALE : Amrita Mahale in conversation with Mohini Khot
About the author :
She is an aeronautics engineer from IIT and Stanford, but one who always aspired to become a writer because she felt she had a story to tell. Her keenly felt perceptions and observations of what was happening around her were a fecund ground and characters and situations found in Milk Teeth had long germinated in her mind. The novel is set in the nineties which she sees as a watershed decade in the evolution of the Indian middle class living through the beginning of economic liberalization and its effects on their lives.
Mohini started the ball rolling by observing that the hallmark of the story is its down to earth realism sans romanticism or glamourization. The people are far from perfect and the situations are not uncomplicated – just as in real life. While there are three young people – Ira, Kartik, and Kaiz – who are the main protagonists, the city of Mumbai itself appears as major role player. Ms Mahale explained that she has tried to show how a city and its inhabitants interact and mutually affect each other’s transformation. The microcosm in which we see this is the story of the inhabitants of Asha Nivas, a building of small flats occupied by middle class people in the quintessentially middle class locality of Matunga. It is brought to life by vignettes of the community which readers can recognize as typical of the middle class of Bombay. Mohini remarked that though we see a remarkably realistic and balanced picture of Bombay, the novel does not really explore its underbelly. But, as Amrita Mahale clarified, that is not her objective . Her aim is to depict it as an essential protagonist in the history of the humans involved. So we see the typical markers of the personality of the city : Udupi restaurants where rapid service does not encourage customers to linger, while in Irani restaurants customers may loiter with impunity. Ms. Mahale also revealed that she chose the early nineties as the backdrop of her story because the period was very catalytic from so many points of view. Economic liberalization was beginning to energize various industrial sectors, notably real estate for example, leading to rapid change and redevelopment in the cityscape, impacting the life and aspirations of the middle class in many ways. Just before the telecom revolution, it was a period when information travelled more slowly, the printed word carried weight, and societal prejudices were just being assailed. Importantly communal unrest surfacing in an unprecedented manner in the famous bomb blasts, become an open wound which changed the psyche of Bombay.
The story revolves around the three main characters – Ira, Kartik and Kaiz.
Ira and Kartik have grown up in Asha Nivas as neighbors and friends from childhood. Kartik goes away from home for higher education, becomes an engineer, follows his career and only comes back years later, working for an MNC. Ira becomes a journalist assigned to the civic beat and, through her eyes, we get a view of Bombay and its landscape in transition.
The story centers around their lives as adults. With the changing times the crumbling Asha
Nivas is up for demolition and rebuilding and the inhabitants are all looking to get the best
deal for themselves from the builders/ promoters etc.
Amrita explained that she has visualised her heroine as a person who has always had a lot of agency (though with her own limitations due to social conditioning) and one who was able to articulate the middle class to which she belonged. Because of her own sense of agency she is very proactive in her relationships. She and Kartik belong to the same class and community and, socially speaking, he is the ideal match for Ira, and she takes the initiative in moving forward. He is, however, a closet homosexual and is subject to all the
vulnerabilities and inhibitions of his class and upbringing.
Amrita expressed her initial apprehensions on writing about homosexuality because she did not wish to misrepresent an already misunderstood community and, apart from drawing on experiences within the family, she also researched the subject thoroughly before going ahead. She said Kartik bears a lot of her own characteristics, dissatisfaction with corporate culture in his profession, and an inability to stand up for himself and what he truly believes in.
Kaiz is described by Ira as the love of her life. She meets him through her work, just entering adulthood. He is an architect, and also a lover of the city. Uprooted in childhood from Delhi to Bombay, child of a broken home, Mohini suggested that, perhaps for these reasons, he adopts Bombay as his city rather than being of it as is Ira . He represents South Bombay as Ira represents suburban middle class Bombay. Amrita further observed that his perception of Bombay is romantic, the Bombay of cliché. He looks for its beauty, and sees the city as a concept rather than loving it as a reality like Ira. Ira also cannot connect with Kaiz's South Bombay circle which she finds artificial .
Mohini also noted that the situation reminded her of "A Suitable Boy" which Amrita corroborated, saying it was her tribute to Vikram Seth's great work. Eventually Kaiz abandons the city saying "I have a wrong name" ( in the wake of the bomb blasts). The story actually takes place when all are in their late twenties and there is talk of Ira and Kartik getting married. Kaiz returns and further discussion on the denouement of the story was not possible so as not to introduce spoilers.
Mohini also commented on the host of minor characters as beautifully etched cameos,
details on a wider canvas which lends a richness and depth to the whole story. Honorable
mentions are the bitchy friend Ananya, and Kartik's romantic foray Pinkesh, as well as some of the other inhabitants of Asha Nivas
Mohini commented on the refreshing departure from convention in the depiction of the
heroine. It is usual for the reader to be favored with a detailed description of the physical
traits of the heroine. Not so here where Ira's looks are almost completely left to the
imagination except for one reference to her green eyes, as if to emphasize that looks are an
irrelevance and all our interest is in her personality .
The story unfolds in the present when all are adults in their late twenties, but many
flashbacks establish the societal background to which the protagonists belong, as well as the changing city. The flashbacks are, however, very seamlessly managed, avoiding any
Why ''Milk Teeth"? It is mentioned only once: "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.” The title Ms. Mahale says, was not her first choice but at the publishers suggestion for a more effective title, she felt that the reference was most appropriate to the theme of the novel – a coming of age on many levels: personal , civic, societal.
The interview ended with Amrita reading out a moving excerpt of a childhood scene.
It left many participants , including me, with the resolve to read the book immediately.