Book Review: Milk Teeth by Amrita Mahale

A novel about relationships and contradictions set in Mumbai in the 1990s

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Rating: 4/5

I must confess right away–I chose to read the book because I found the cover attractive and the title intriguing.

Is this a story about relationships and friendships (Ira, Kaiz, and Kartik) set against the backdrop of the events happening in Mumbai in the 90s? Or is it a social and political commentary on the state of things just after liberalization? Either way, Mahale’s writing is polished and absorbing.

Although divided into three parts, you move seamlessly through the story–from the politics surrounding the redevelopment of the crumbling Asha Nivas, to Ira’s observations on the hypocrisy of the caste system and society’s treatment of women, to Kartik’s double life, and Kaiz’s confusion about home and faith and his juggling act between his childhood friends and “intellectual” friends.

I found it quite satisfying to see the way the story came to its conclusion. But not everybody will think it’s a happy ending. I’m so proud of Ira for staying true to her values.

Kaiz’s anguish over his religious identity and feeling of rootlessness in Mumbai is deeply felt. The episode with the taxi driver made my blood boil, too! I sympathize with his reasons for quitting the country–despite leaving so much personal destruction in its wake.

I also understand Ira’s decisions with respect to love and life. I relate with what motivates her and what she holds sacred. But I cannot forgive Kartik for what he does to Ira–his lie will always be bigger than Ira’s.

I have never visited Mumbai, but Mahale’s portrayal of the city is so beautiful that it ceases to be a city–and instead becomes an emotion.

“Someone cracked the sun open and orange yolk spilled out into the sky,” she says.

The contradictions, the warmth, the filth, and the cruelty of the city have all been dealt with.

What I enjoyed the most was a glimpse of life in the 90s–

  • when children played outdoors every afternoon and resolved their differences without the interference of grown-ups,
  • when parents could not think beyond caste, class, and religion when it came to marriage,
  • when earning an MBA and working at an MNC had begun to make boys good “catches” in the marriage market,
  • when families were frugal and life much simpler because the Internet and smartphones were yet to invade homes.

Small details like these hit me like a wave of nostalgia, reminding me how I had grown up in much the same environment.

The pace of the narrative dips at times, when Mahale becomes a bit philosophical. I am biased because I don’t like abstract thoughts, but other readers may find profound meaning in these passages.

There are some biting aphorisms, though, that I simply loved, such as “The first coat of paint always shows.”

Mahale describes quintessentially Indian things in English, yet it does not sound fake or contrived. That, I think, is her biggest strength.

You can get yourself a copy of the book on Amazon.

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