Writers on Reading. Part Eight, Jerry Pinto.
Over the past few weeks, we've been devouring Jerry Pinto's body of work. From the very personal Em and the Big Hoom where mental illness is dealt with refreshing frankness and humour, to the almost poetic 'Some Ways Not to Write a Poem', there's nothing that we've found so far, that we don't want to read a second time.
In his novels and poems, he captures people and the places they inhabit so evocatively, that you can’t help but feel like you are walking alongside them. Reading his acceptance speech for the Sahitya Akademi Award (for Em and the Big Hoom in 2016), you know that he is going to protect the flaming torch of truth that he’s been handed. Look up his work as a columnist, and you’ll probably find yourself being ushered on a hopeful jaunt around the city by the sea. In his interviews, you’ll find a candour so inventive, that you wish that you’d been the one interviewing him.
And so we hope is the case for our readers before you read our Q&A session with him.
“Thalassa, Thalassa.” You’ve said that the sea was your favourite part of Mahim growing up? Does this still hold true and what comes a close second?
I think if you live by the sea, you begin to forget it. I said that to remind myself of what an awe-inspiring presence it is, the sea, any sea.
Is it reassuring? That it will be here afterwards?
That it was here before?
That it was nibbling on the land before the city?
That it will be nibbling on the land afterwards?
It depends on whether you’re sure.
I’m not sure.
What is your first memory of writing? And did what you read have any influence on it?
I don’t have a first memory. I was told by various people that I was a silent baby and even thought to be dumb. And then I spoke a full sentence when I had something to say. This actually sounds like myth-making, family myth-making to me. But when I first heard it, I liked it.
I have been trying to write ever since.
How much time do you dedicate to reading in a day?
I can’t quantify for you the time I spend reading because I would not know. I read obsessively. I read whenever I can. I stand at bus-stops and read. I go to the loo with a magazine. I sometimes am guilty of reading and walking at the same time though I know this can be dangerous. So no, I don’t know how long I read. But in general I read two or three books a week on busy weeks. On good weeks, it’s a lot more.
What does your current reading list look like?
I read many books simultaneously. I am reading The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill. I am reading Balance by Scott McCredie. I am reading Arundhathi Subramaniam’s new book of poetry, Love without a Story. I am reading If It Die by Andre Gide. I am reading Jokha Alharthi’s novel, Celestial Bodies.
Could you recommend five contemporary Indian writers for our readers?
Most of your readers would know contemporary writers. They would find them on the shelves of their bookshops. I am going to suggest five books out of India which I have enjoyed and they might not have noticed.
There are some authors that transport you to the time and place where their story is set. We found that true for Bombay both in Em and the Big Hoom and Murder in Mahim. Do you have a list of books that act as unlicensed tour guides for places?
I think any novel which has a city for a setting tells you something about the city. It is rare for a novel to be untethered to a landscape, though The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro shows how it can be done and done well.
Google tells us your Instagram bio, “Hoot mon, dinna fash,” translates to “Hey man, don’t fret,” in Scots. Who is fretting about what?
It seems to me that almost everyone these days is getting hot and bothered about something but mainly this is an admonition to myself. I was on Facebook and Twitter and I left when I found they were getting toxic and I was wasting a huge amount of time on these ersatz communities. I walked away and then suddenly found that I was on Instagram and so when I had to think of a line, I thought: You have to be able to do this lightly, to work this thing so you can do what you want to do with it. Now you will ask: What do you want to do with? To which my answer can only be: I have not the faintest clue. So there we are, whatever it is I want to do or don’t want to do, I want to happen or don’t want to happen, I have to remind myself, I came in out of the cold. I can’t fash...
If you had to send a young reader on a literary tour of reading rooms, libraries and bookstores in Bombay, what would the itinerary look like?
First, the People’s Free Reading Room and Library which might well be the building in which Gandhiji made his first speech. Then the J N Petit Library and the David Sassoon. Then sweep them around to the Asiatic and the K R Cama. Off now to the University of Mumbai Library and then to Kitbkhana and Wayword & Wise. Final stop: the boarded-up premises of Strand. If they want to buy, then on to the streets around Fountain and a train ride to Matunga and King’s Circle.
"P is for the poets of the city, its bards, its storytellers," you've said. Your contemporary, Arundathi Subramaniam, also speaks of the collaborative spirit of the Poetry Circle gatherings—“Our conversations weren’t just about how to be published and where to be reviewed. Instead, we devoured other poets and subjected our own work to minute workshop critique.” Does poetry continue to have such a strong support system? Where can a fledgling poet find refuge today?
You don’t order up refuges. You build them, event by event, workshop by workshop, meeting by meeting. We did that for ourselves. Menaka Shivdasani, R Raj Rao, Aqil Contractor and Ranjit Hoskote, I think, were the first members, the progenitors of the Poetry Circle, Bombay. Others came and went and over a decade of trial and error, we built a circle of protection where poetry mattered. (It didn’t seem to matter outside.)
Nothing to stop young people from trying to do that again. My friends tell me that the salon has been replaced by the agorae of social media; that the Twitterverse is where you get feedback and critique and everything else. If that is so, it is wonderful.
We notice that you are friends with a lot of other writers. So what do writers talk about when they meet? Also tell us, do you swap books?
Well, we’re people too. Often we discuss new diets and our health issues. (After fifty, one tends to take the auguries of the body a lot more seriously.) We also discuss political developments. We discuss new books we have read, old books we have discovered, things we are re-reading. There was a time when we were evangelical and wanted others to read what we were reading. Then we grew up and discovered that everyone has their own priorities, their own tastebuds, their own epiphanies. We have begun to respect these and not thrust books on people.
When you say swap, do you mean: you give me yours and I will give you mine? Or do you mean lending books? A lot of lending, yes, because my friends anthologise and raid my shelves and I do too, so I ask them for help and conduct some raids myself.
In a past interview, you’ve mentioned that the uncle who sent you foil-wrapped garlic chicken dry from his Chinese thela does really exist. Of the other real-life characters that feature in your writing (apart from family), who is your favourite?
Almost everyone is drawn from life but not in her or his entirety. They are composite characters and in that one can do what Nature never does: one can create coherent characters who are believable. No human being is ever coherent or believable.
Murder in Mahim features a newspaper article by a Jotin Perry, which is happily an anagram of your name? Are there any more secrets that you’ve hidden in your books? Tell us one (or two or three).
Em and the Big Hoom has quotes from several of my favourite poets buried in the text.
Following Em and the Big Hoom, many of your readers shared stories about their experiences living with and caring for family members with mental health issues, and so came about A Book of Light, the anthology that you compiled from these stories. Both books have in a way shaped public discourse about mental health. Is another volume on the cards?
I suppose the third in the mental health trilogy could be taken as my translation of Swadesh Deepak’s Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, ‘I have not seen Mandu’. Looking back, I can see the organic relationships between these three books. Em and the Big Hoom began to the debate. At the readings people would begin to share their stories and eventually, The Book of Light grew out of that moment. One of the last stories that came in for The Book of Light was ‘Papa, Elsewhere’ by Sukant Deepak, Swadesh Deepak’s son.
This is how it happened. Nirupama Dutt who wrote one of the stories called up one day and said, ‘Have you heard of Swadesh Deepak?’ I had to say that the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t be sure. She jogged my memory: ‘Court Martial?’ Then I remembered the play. But that was all I knew. I had no idea he had suffered a nervous breakdown—his words for it—and had tried to kill himself many times and after one attempt, when he tried to set himself on fire, he was admitted to the Chandigarh AIIMS and no one could be sure whether he should be in the burns unit or the psychiatric ward. When he recovered his friends urged him to write about the experience and he did. This was Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, which he calls a fractured collage. After a few years of the book coming out, the demons resurfaced and one day, he got up in the morning to go for a walk, and never returned. He just vanished. Sukant Deepak’s story was deeply moving and he mentioned this autobiographical account.
At that time, my friend the painter Jehangir Sabavala had died and his wife, Shirin Sabavala asked for my help with his archive. We were working out what had to be sent to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangralaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum) when I found a copy of Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. It had a Sabavala on the cover! I asked if I could borrow it and on the local train home, I fell into the book.
I was still on Facebook when I got home and I sent Sukant a message: You must translate this book. He said: I can’t. It’s too personal. I said: Then may I do it? It was that automatic, that spontaneous.
And I did.
Novelist, poet, editor, translator, biographer, columnist. What’s your favourite literary cap to put on and why?
No headgear. I don’t work with headgear. I work with words. When the words come, they decide what form they will take. I go along for the ride.
What do the next few months in the life of Jerry Pinto, the writer, look like?
I wish I knew. It would be reassuring.
Finally, if you had to recommend the next candidate that Soup could interview for its Writers on Reading segment, who would it be? And what do you hope to find out about them?
I should like you to talk to Arundhathi Subramaniam. When I read one of her poems, I feel you could grow vegetables in them. I want to know how she does it.
Interviewed by Ganga Madappa