Milk Teeth By Amrita Mahale: Book review

I thought about why the book is named, ‘Milk teeth’. 

Is it a reference to earstwhile Bombay’s shedding of it’s post-industrial era greasepaint, into a shiny new coat of cosmopolitan, glitzy, ‘Mumbai’? Or is about the people that constitute the great metropolis, shedding their migrant ideologies, old habits and ethos to survive in the city of dreams? 

Perhaps its about how the central characters, Ira Kamat and Kartik Kini, two childhood friends, grow into their respective adult lives in post- liberalized India – in ways that are vastly different from what is expected out of them.

This was a time when satellite channels were beamed on television sets, the telephone had just arrived at home, cars had suddenly become more accessible- harbingers of permanent change. So was the rapidly changing skyline of Mumbai, from the comfortable chaos of Matunga’s network of crumbling old buildings to neat squares of sparkling new high-rises, grudgingly rubbing shoulders.

The story follows the life of a city reporter in Mumbai in the late 90’s. Ira Kamat is a third-generation daughter of working-class immigrants from the Konkan coast – a Goud Saraswat Brahmin (something she’s keenly reminded of, in her firmly casteist, bourgeois family). Her family’s tussle with their building’s landlord and a builder who want to drive out all the ‘tenants’ who’ve been occupying the building for generations, is intertwined with her childhood friendship and consequent courtship with Kartik Kini, who hails from a fellow high-caste ‘bourgie’ family.

A certain secret, forbidden love-affair exposes a glaring contrast to the protagonist’s middle-class values and manner of life.

As Kartik and Ira’s lives unfold, the story exposes the acrid class, caste and religious divides amongst the people of 90’s Bombay. The characters are vulnerable at times, irreverent at others- giving us an intimate glimpse into their lives and an insight into the motivations of millions of middle- class Indians living in the city.

I liked how my feelings for the three central characters were made to oscillate wildly throughout the book. Just when I started to hate one of them, Mahale carved a soft corner for him in my heart. Likewise, just when I stared to feel terrible for another character, she made him do something so vile, I recoiled in horror. I liked this ebb and flow of emotion- it kept me engaged and made sure I wasn’t partial to a particular character. It gave me objectivity as a reader, which was crucial to the story.

The exhaustive, everyday race for a better life is so poignantly put in words, the rich architectural heritage of south Bombay so intricately described, and the gaping class divide so sharply dissected, that it turns ‘Milk Teeth’ into a slick, sharp-tongued tour guide, offering a rare, voyeuristic view of the city.

I would’ve probably written the last page of the book differently, though. There was ample closure for the central character, Ira but I felt like there was something amiss – something huge. Apart from this, and the over-use of the word ‘acquiescence’ (four times in the second half of the book. Why? It’s not even a particularly good word), I relished the novel, page by page. 

A beautifully written and thought-provoking debut.