Art, literature, science are our efforts to make sense of things around us: writer Jayant Kaikini

Jayant Kaikini is a renowned Kannada poet, author, essayist, lyricist whose book No Presents Please translated into English by Tejaswini Niranjana, recently won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2018. Srajana Kaikini, daughter of the writer, interviews him for The Bengal Story. Srajana Kaikini pursues philosophy and art through her practices of writing, creating and curating.


SK: Writing takes various forms be it of short stories, plays, poetry, essays or novels. You have explored most forms except the form of the novel. What is special about form in writing? Do you feel the need for a new form?

JK: Forms are very unique to the experience they create or impart. Whatever I get when I write a poem is different from what I derive when I write a short story or an essay. When I write lyrics, it is different altogether. I am not talking about the craft of it but the experience that it gives us. So perhaps any new form is a boon for any writer, especially for me. The novel is a form which I have not tried because it takes a lot of time. I am a restless man and I cannot hold anything from others for a long time.

Novel writing means you have to stay with your characters for at least couple of years without sharing it with anybody. I don’t think my temperament suits it, but I do see it as a challenge to take up. My readers say that a poetic sensibility runs through most of my writings. So perhaps novel-writing will also have such elements of poetic form in it which I have yet to explore.

SK: Most of your characters in No Presents Please are set in a pre-smartphone era. How and where would they be today?

JK: A while ago, a reader of mine from Bombay wrote me a long letter. In it, she wrote about all my characters, telling me what they are doing today. Over three pages, she traced my characters, saying “your Dagadu is now running an auto-rickshaw outside Grant Road Station” or connecting Dagadu with another character of mine, “it seems he met him recently.” She had written it in the same vein and tone of my writing. My stories till about 2004, were all pre-smartphone, but much of my latest writing including stories in my recent collections, Charminar or Toofan Mail, are set in today’s time and condition.

That said, the people who use smartphones are not interesting to me at all, because they are not connected to the world. A person who is listening to music on headphones, despite his best intentions of perhaps not wanting to disturb others, always appears odd to me. I think music, or any form of art is a virtue to be shared. Art doesn’t tell you to enjoy it in isolation; that is not the purpose of art. Only reading can, perhaps, be done in isolation, but music, theatre, films are supposed to be seen and heard with people. Films are supposed to be seen in theatres with people. I remember seeing Rang de Basanti and enjoying it in a packed theatre, but when I went again with a friend for a repeat show, the theatre was empty and we didn’t enjoy it as much at all, because something vital, the collective mind of the audience, was missing.

Now people have begun watching films on smartphones, small screens… nothing interesting in it. For me, the man who interacts physically, is more interesting. Only then, there’s a story. If a man is on his smartphone, then there’s no story because the story is hidden behind his phone!

SK: How do you imagine the life of a story? Are stories born and do they die? Is there life and death to literature as such?

JK: A story is there to stay. Life has no structure, it is non-literary, has no ideas nor concepts. It just flows. It is we who try to give a structure to it to make sense of it for ourselves. It is like a river flowing from which we take water in a mug, or a barrel or a pot and we think that is the shape or structure of water. Similarly, art, literature, science are our efforts to make sense of things around us. In the same way, we often turn our own lives into a story. I can make a story to make me happy, I can make one to make me sad using the same elements around me. Everybody has converted their lives these days into television serials – mega serials! It is all about how you look at it.

I am reminded of this small episode from when I was in Hyderabad, which figures in one of my stories, Charminar. While I was there, I would often pass by the statue which stands holding up his palm in the middle of Hussainsagar Lake. When I first entered the city, I thought the statue was saying ‘Hi!’ to me, waving to me. Then, during some testing times for me in that city, whenever I walked by the lake, the same hand seemed to ask me ‘What’s up?’ And I remember distinctly how, after some days, the same hand was distinctly waving me ‘Bye’! Soon after I decided to quit my job there and moved to Bangalore. So, the same statue gave me three different stories – my stories.

If we go to a play, we come home and tell a story, if we go to the market, we come home and tell a story. Even if nothing happens and we don’t get a ticket to the play, we come home and tell that story. Stories are in us to make life amusing, more controllable. I think we seek to control life, through stories.

SK: On many occasions, you have said that the central concern for any writer should be to safeguard and evoke the unsaid or the ineffable. What kinds of unsaid are you speaking of?

JK: Literature resonates the unsaid of today. This unsaid does not mean that which can be said and has not yet been said. There are so many kinds of unsaid, like silences – I may want to say something but I might not say it deliberately or because I might be silenced by somebody – one who wants to know is silent, one who does not know is also silent. So, silence, just like the unsaid, has different connotations.

Any writing or poem deals with the unsaid of its time and society, which should resonate in its stories. Poetry is where you communicate this with what is say-able. The writers whom I like have always tried to write like that and I try to write that too. Whenever you get into any work, literary or otherwise, the experience which is created in you is more from the implicit. There should be a match between the unsaids of reader and the text. I think there is too much of unsaid in this answer!

For instance, take this book No Presents Please, which has recently gone across language to English. I am humbled and heartened by the fact that the response to it is very fresh and vibrant as if I have written it now. The stories were written ten, twenty or even thirty years ago. Those stories have evoked such remarkable responses from other writers, readers. This means that the unsaid which I am talking about is not too time-bound either. It is like good milk powder – if you put water you can make your tea anytime – but you should have that water with you.

[Author’s photograph on cover, taken by Srajana Kaikini]

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