To say Amrita Mahale’s debut novel is set in Mumbai circa 1997 is only partially correct. Written in a series of flashbacks, Mahale’s Milk Teeth is an interesting exploration of our recent past. The 90s, post-liberalisation, many remember those years as India’s glory days. Satellite television and the Internet was introduced. Mahale’s Mumbai is, however, crumbling, dirty and corrupt.
Milk Teeth follows what is essentially a love story, be it an unrequited one, between the protagonist Ira and her childhood friend Karthik. The two were close when they were young, dated briefly, but separated by time and location. They meet once again when a cooperative society building, in which Ira lives with her parents, is under threat from the landlord and builders.
Milk Teeth is also a one-sided love story between Mumbai and its middle-class residents. As the city is swept up in the changes brought on by liberalisation, its original residents find themselves pushed out to make room for luxury condos and shopping malls.
Ira cast as a city beat reporter is in the perfect position to watch the changing city. Through her eyes the reader is taken towards the rotting buildings of Mumbai; through her nose we smell the stinking garbage piled up high. She uncovers the corruption already taking root in the new system and thus, so does the reader.
When her home — the building Asha Nivas — becomes a site for redevelopment, the tenants turn to Ira to use her “city connections”.
Just as Ira’s work as a city reporter makes for the perfect protagonist, the plight of Asha Nivas is a metaphor for the post-Babri Mumbai. Devoid of its old school, liberal charm, and a virtual tinderbox ready to explode.
The author captures this well in dialogue and through her characters. Ira’s argument with one of her uncles over Babri is a conversation that’s circled India for decades.
“We Hindus are too soft,” Ashok kaka says.
“Too soft? Who demolished Babri Masjid? Who started the riots?”
“But, Ira, who started it all…. who invaded us 900 years ago?”
We all have an Ashok kaka in our family, perhaps several.
Unlike the question of who did what first, Mahale’s understanding of the craft of writing remains undisputed. A solid writer, she structures her debut with all its back and forth with the ease of a spin-doctor. The prose is meticulously lyrical, almost set to a metronome.
The portraits she paints of Mumbai in the 90s are plump
with details enough to make it breathe. A young girl reading The Fountainhead;
memories of standing in front of the Taj waiting for someone to open the door
so she and Karthik can get some air conditioned relief from summer. These are
memories as familiar to any Mumbaikar as is Ashok kaka to most
Through the flashback, the reader meets Ira’s on and off boyfriend Kaiz. Rich, well-read, South Bombay born, he is Ira’s look into the lifestyle and lifelessness of Mumbai’s elite. Surprisingly, where Karthik and Ashok kaka are drawn as full, rotund characters, Kaiz comes off as flat. So do his friends — the catty socialite, the clueless cool kids.
Another scene between Ira, Kaiz and an auto driver is telling of Mumbai’s deteriorating social fabric. It also speaks volumes about a certain kind of impatient and entitled anger that is presently proliferating amidst young Indians.
The scene takes place post-Babri but before the Bombay blasts. Kaiz and Ira are taking an auto. The driver, a man with many saffron stickers on his dashboard is airing his hatred of Muslims.
“Too bad we can’t teach them a lesson even after two tries,” says the driver.
Kaiz’s blood is boiling at this point. Ira has her arm on his shoulder to calm him down. Clueless as to the company he’s in, the auto driver goes on to spit out his anger. Finally Kaiz’s inability to keep his indignation in check forces Ira to abruptly end the ride.
It’s interesting to this reader that Ira the city reporter isn’t more sensitive to the changes and circumstances that led to such hatred spewing. Rather she seems to be a self-involved character never really looking beyond where men lead her.
This reader began the review by saying that Mahale’s book presents an interesting metaphor for Mumbai. I concede to amend that to some of Mumbai. Ira’s isn’t a macro-picture of the city boiling over from all sides. It’s actually just parts that affect her love story. The same year that Ira excitedly tells her lovers about her “50 years since Independence” series for a paper, Mumbai witnessed one of its shameful moments of history. On August 11, 1997 police killed the Dalits residing in Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar for protesting. Nary a mention of this atrocity by a city reporter makes this reader wonder how narrow a view of Mumbai did she have?
For this reader, Karthik’s character was the most interesting. His struggle with his sexuality from childhood to manhood is told in great detail and with sympathy. The scenes where he goes about discovering his preferences, such as the one in the men’s toilet where he joins in on a jacking off session is stark and devoid of romanticisation and judgment. It’s fresh and interesting.
For all the talk about Milk Teeth being a parable for Mumbai, at its core the book is a love story composed of beautiful prose. In the end, however, it reminds this reader of a house whose construction materials are aesthetically pleasing but ultimately hollow.