Amrita Mahale is an aeronautical engineer by profession. She studied as the lone woman in her engineering class in IIT and she even wrote about female students experiencing the “imposter syndrome” in classes that are dominated by men. Her first book Milk Teeth, like her, stands out in the publishing scene of India.
The blurb for Milk Teeth reads “Between and around them throbs the living, beating heart of Mumbai, city of heaving inequities and limitless dreams.” The book weaves through the stories of Bombay, the visible and the invisible. Mahale’s writing deftly exposes the excitement of living in a city growing in the twentieth century without hiding its disparaging inequality.
Bombay, the city that later came to be known as Mumbai, was perhaps one of the earliest areas affected by the after effects of the liberalization policies that came into effect in the early 90s — something that changed the face of India and its economy for good. This is a city revered for its celebrities, its history, and its culture. When multinational companies came to India, they wanted to set up base in the growing city, where skyscrapers and smaller glass buildings were sprouting out of the ground with fancy names like Bellevue and Santacruz.
However, Bombay was not an empty city. Its heart was beating long before the world deemed it good enough to step foot in. What of those who had to move out of their old homes to make way for the new?
Milk Teeth explores this through the lives of the residents of Asha Nivas, a residency building in Matunga in 1997 who are being forced by their landlord to vacate their rent-controlled apartments with his plan to demolish the old, worn-down building in order to build a taller, fancier apartment complex. The story begins with a silent death threat received by one of the tenants which leads to a meeting between the neighbors on the roof of the building to discuss this imminently growing threat and how they can navigate this. Of course, like in society, not everyone agrees to a single plan – there are those who want more money to leave the apartments, those who want new apartments, and those who are unwilling to leave, no matter what.
Ira Kamat, a journalist who covers the corporation and its activities has known no other home than Asha Nivas where she grew up with Kartik Kini, neighbor and childhood unrequited love. Kartik, in almost all ways, represents what you might think is the typical Indian young man of the 90s – an IIT and IIM graduate who then joined as a consultant with an international company. But this is where it ends. Ira and Kartik shared a childhood, their choices led them down different roads but they reconnect back at Asha Nivas in their adulthood.
Through Ira, the reader explores Bombay – we navigate its lavish hotels, apartments with westernized names, through its bumpy roads and narrow lanes. Mahale writes of the city and its nuances beautifully. Matunga is a city that is in fact known for its juxtaposition of Udupi restaurants (vegetarian eateries) and its Irani cafes (non-vegetarian eateries). Through the mysterious Kaiz, Mahale explains how these budget eateries represent the Bombay society itself – the Irani cafes being more open as compared to the “brahminical air” of the Udupi restaurants.
Caste and religion interwoven subtly throughout the book. In the aftermath of the Babri Masjid incident, religious tensions grew in many major cities in India. The title of the book comes from one of the most profound passages in the book: “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 peach that followed felt like hate was only shedding its milk teeth.”
Milk Teeth captures the zeitgeist of Bombay of the 90s. It explores a city coming into its own through the lives of its characters; she paints the messy picture of Bombay becoming the Mumbai the world knows today. Yet, Mahale shows us that, no matter what the city is named – Bombay or Mumbai – its soul remains the same, within and around its people.