Jerry Pinto is the proverbial writer who needs no introduction. He has written books for adults and children, poetry, edited several anthologies of fiction and nonfiction, and translates into English from Marathi, Konkani, and Hindi. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2016 for his debut novel Em and the Big Hoom. The novel also won The 2012 Hindu Literary Prize and was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Book Prize.
Pinto’s translations include the novel Cobalt Blue, Daya Pawar (Baluta) and Swadesh Deepak’s (I Have Not Seen Mandu) memoirs, and Dalit writer Baburao Bagul’s short story collection When I Hid My Caste. His latest novel, The Education of Yuri was published by Speaking Tiger in August this year.
At the 2022 Tata Lit Live! The Mumbai Litfest, Pinto spoke to Scroll.in about growing up in Bombay in the 1980s and how the city became his muse, the ridiculousness of Bollywood and why he writes about it, the necessary practice of translation, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:
Bombay is a big part of who you are. The city is a muse to you. How and when did you start visualising stories in the city?
I was about 14 when I started writing my first novel. I wanted the story to be set in London or New York, because all the books that I was reading were set there. I acquired a map of London and I would look up where Portobello Road and other famous places were. I spent so much time in this stupid pursuit!
Then one fine day, I realised that Bombay was right in front of me waiting to be discovered. I think it was around the time when I was in college that I began to think it might be possible to write about Bombay. But again, my imagination was limited to south Bombay. I had to overcome my own hierarchies and biases of thinking – you know, that London, New York, or south Bombay are where the stories are.
Finally it dawned on me that maybe Mahim is where the story is and where I could set my book. It was also where I grew up and was comfortable in. It was a natural setting for my stories…it was not forced. Some day I would like to write a book set in another city but I have a feeling I will have to go and live there for two or three years and really get to know the place. I don’t know if that’s possible but perhaps I could write a book about a Bombay person living in another city and looking at their new life with Bombay eyes.
There are many things about my city that I wish could be changed and there are also many things about my city that I cherish. I like that Bombay has become a metaphor for the can-do spirit. This city never fails to inspire.
Surviving Women (2000) is your debut book. How did it come to be? What made you write about relationships between men and women?
Shobhaa Dé, Anil Dharkar, David Davidar, and Mark Tully were chatting after Shobhaa’s Surviving Men had come out. David asked, who do you think can write Surviving Women? Later Anil told me that all three of them said Jerry Pinto!
A lady wrote to me from Penguin asking me if I would write the book. And I thought, Is she mad! Writing this book will make me lose all my female friends! I decided I wouldn’t write it. But then again it was a book and more importantly, an invitation to write a book. It would have my name on its spine. I thought about this project for a long, long time. The lady from Penguin had also gone silent – I did not hear from her again.
Soon after I got a letter from this chap called Ravi Singh saying that he had recently replaced the lady at Penguin. He proposed resuscitating the project. I thought I would meet him and tell him no. But when I finally met him, I just knew I wanted to write this book. I knew Surviving Women was going to be my first book.
But I had something else in mind. I decided I would interview men about their relationships with women and piece together a narrative. I wrote the book in that form and sent off the manuscript to Ravi. He said he enjoyed it but wanted me to rewrite the entire thing. I had no choice but to do it!
It was great fun writing Surviving Women. I realised how differently men talked about their relationships. For example, let’s say a female friend has had a break up, she will tell me the story in poignant detail. I can write a beautiful story about it. But men! They only want to drown their sorrows in alcohol and talk sports. I have no regrets about Surviving Women and there have been times when women told me that they enjoyed the book. All in all, it was a nice experience.
Your first novel Em and the Big Hoom (2012) was published nearly 12 years after your debut book. What was it like writing a novel about mental health and dysfunctional families?
I pitched the first version of the novel to Ravi Singh in 1992 or so and he signed a contract with me around the same time. First of all, it was a completely different story then. It was almost baroque-like – all the outliers of my family, the strange cousins, all the monsters and freaks of the family were in it. Eventually, it was distilled to what is now Em and the Big Hoom. Ravi kept the manuscript with him for nearly 20 years.
I don’t think there’s such a thing as a functional family. It’s a myth that we have created. There are only dysfunctional families and two things define our families – one, how toxic they are and two, how the toxicity is upheld or viewed in the family. A certain degree of toxicity is to be expected in any family. Once you get away from your family, just a little distance will do, and you look at it…you will realise that this toxicity is your resource. It is your motherlode! This is where you will get everything but of course, first you will have to survive it. You need to be in good shape and have the objectivity to see the stories in your family. Creating a distance certainly helps.
I wrote about mental health because my mother was bipolar. The original book featured family members who also had some mental health issues. But if you put all of that in one book…no one will believe you by the time they finish reading it. The book had to be trimmed and that is why it focuses only on the mother and how the immediate family negotiates her illness with love. I thought I was writing a book about love and how difficult it can be to love someone who has a mental illness and when you’re confined with them in a small space of a Bombay flat. For me, it was a lesson on post-modernism – I wrote a book and readers told me what they thought about it! I am glad it made people talk about mental illnesses in our families.
There’s no Bollywood without Bombay. You have written about Helen and movie posters from back in the day and you have also edited an anthology of essays on the Hindi film industry. What does Bollywood mean to you?
Bollywood was my joy! But even as a child I could tell that something was terribly wrong with it. I remember watching Mard (1985) and seeing how Amitabh Bachchan’s character assaults Amrita Singh’s character and still she falls in love with him. Back then I did not know anything about feminism but I knew this was toxic. I knew this was wrong! But oddly enough, five minutes later I was laughing and back to enjoying the film. That’s popular culture for you.
I read Roxanne Gay and she writes about how your body responds enthusiastically to rap music even though the lyrics are often anti-women. I understood that this was not all that uncommon and it is how I was interacting with Bollywood. I could see the stereotypes and the ways they were perpetuated but Hindi movies still brought me so much joy. You really can’t explain it – it’s like eating a big, solid, sweet piece of cake! Bollywood was the same for me. Bollywood was my joy and that’s why I wrote about it. I liked how far removed it was from reality and how little it had to do with logic.
Yuri is from Mahim. You grew up in Mahim too. How much of Yuri from The Education of Yuri is you?
Yuri is a fictional character. A fictional character is never one person, they are always a composite character. Putting a real person in a book is like putting an elephant in a teapot – they just won’t fit and will end up destroying the teapot. When I am writing a novel, I will have to make the reader believe that this character exists. And how can I do that? I have to put a shape to what I know, what I have experienced, and also what others have experienced.
What I will say is this – a lot of Yuri is me and a lot of Yuri is also not me. I mean, I had parents but Yuri is an orphan. Many things that happened to him did not happen to me. I was in Elphinstone College, yes, but I didn’t even notice the Naxalite movement! I was very content sitting in the library, going to the Chemould Art Gallery, hanging out with my friends. Yuri also does all of this but he’s also somewhat aware of what’s happening outside the college. That’s the wealth of experience that all of us get in our five years of college.
Yuri has a life that takes a trajectory of its own – I could not have experienced all that he has. It’s not possible. He is a composite character but he’s also a part of me.
To me, the Bombay of 1980s takes centrestage in The Education of Yuri. The city has a very tangible, solid presence. You also came of age during this time. What was it like remembering (and writing about) that era?
It was heartbreaking. I think were standing in the middle of a great possibility and we messed it up. The 1980s was the last decade of Indian socialism and in the 1990s we made a clear break with it by bringing in economic liberalisation. We became a part of the global economy.
In the 1980s, I remember people who had Pakistani cousins were deeply envious because their cousins in Pakistan had American jeans, the latest records arrived within weeks of release, they were cool! And here, we waited years to listen to the latest music which by then had already become old. People came home carrying one ABBA record that everybody would gather around to listen. Let me quote Ricky Martin here, to us, youngsters in Pakistan were really “livin’ la Vida Loca!”
In the 1990s, everything changed. I think of this decade as a time when we could have strengthened ourselves as a nation. In hindsight, I think we tried but there was perhaps a willful ignorance of the rising tide of many ills. Because of “sharam,” many people did not say what they were thinking. This did not help anyone and maybe in some ways led to the rise of right-wing politics.
We created such a strong, monolithic, single way of talking about the nation that we truly believed Bombay to be a “melting pot.” We believed that Bombay was not interested in religion, we convinced ourselves that riots could not happen in this city, that they were something that happened in other, small cities. Then 1992 happened and it was a “pardafash.” The veils of ignorance were totally stripped from our eyes as we realised what was actually happening next door.
In the book, Yuri is living in a brittle but beautiful bubble. I sometimes wanted to prick the bubble but I couldn’t! Not just Yuri, but all of us were living in a similar bubble in the 1980s. I think we really messed up.
Let’s talk about Em and the Big Hoom and The Education of Yuri. They are both set in Bombay, not “Mumbai.” Can you tell me a little bit about how Bombay is different from Mumbai for you as a writer? And as a writer do you feel closer to Bombay?
Not at all! I absolutely embrace Mumbai. Mumbai is a really special city because it is massive and inclusive. Bombay is a small place manned by elites who wants to keep the non-English speaking at bay. That’s Bombay for me and I don’t belong to Bombay.
I’m happy in Mahim and everywhere that’s to the north of Mahim. I love taking the trains – you can think on the train, you can even write on the train. I have no qualms with Mumbai but I do have a problem with the mythic Bombay. It is an elite concept constructed by English-speaking people who want to pretend that they are living in another country. Mumbai smears you, it inflicts you with pain – you cannot walk in it without getting assaulted. But which writer in their right mind wouldn’t see that Mumbai is their biggest gift? Bombay exists in nostalgia while Mumbai is the repository of experiences and sensations.
You also write fiction for young readers What is it like? What are the challenges of writing for children?
I don’t bother myself with the audience actually. I wrote a story about teddy bears and sent it to Ravi Singh. He said it was very sweet and eventually Puffin published it. This was A Bear for Felicia. Later, both he and I discovered that the biggest readers of the book were young women! They would tell me that they read and re-read the book.
The challenges – well, you can’t write about sex or violence or death. I think that’s a bit silly because you know, children do experience death and violence. I’m in the process of writing a children’s book about death – I want to tell them that all of us will die. Some of us will go before others. I don’t know how to say it without sounding wrong or false but I’m doing due research.
The problem is that we don’t want children to encounter the world in a real sense and when adults do want them to, they tend to overdo it. I try not to be prescriptive or impart morals with my stories – we tell children don’t do this, don’t do that, be like this, be like that but we don’t have to always talk to them as authoritative figures. Do you remember how powerless you were as a child? We were happiest when no one paid attention to us, even boredom was welcome. Sometimes it’s important to be a child – bratty, bored, curious.
You translate from Marathi, Konkani, and Hindi. Nine books of your translations have been published already. Why do you translate?
I really don’t want to translate. I wish I didn’t have to and I could just read what other people are translating. I translate because I get ambushed by books. What happens is I fall in love with a book. I think it should also be available to English readers and I hope someone else will translate it. I tell other people this is a really good book and they should translate it. In return they tell me, “Jerry, if you really like this book so much then why don’t you translate it?” Now tell me, what choice do I have but to translate the book that I so love!
Before translating Baluta, I called Shanta Gokhale to ask if the book has been translated. She said no. The book was published in 1978 and in 2008 Shanta tells me that no one has yet translated this magnificent book. I ask her if I should and she says yes. And that’s how I ended up translating Baluta. I think sometimes a book jumps out and demand that it be translated.
I strongly believe that you should translate if you can. We all live in our own islands and we reach out to those on other islands only when it suits our agenda. When we translate, we do so to help others read stories that we love. Translating is a deep encounter with a language and it is even better than reading because it forces you to go into the depths of two languages at the same time. Your engagement with the text becomes all the more vibrant. Translating helps you write better, you realise how diverse writing can be.
You have written novels, essays, and poetry. You have your very own newspaper column in Hindustan Times. What is your most preferred medium for writing?
That is difficult to answer. Picking one means implying that there is one unitary self. What I would really like is to sit around and write poetry all day. I believe that you have to write every day but most days I can’t write poetry. What I usually end up writing is prose.
Let’s say Bombay/Mumbai was a person. How would you describe Bombay/Mumbai to a friend using only one word?