Moving easily among different genres: An interview with Jerry Pinto

Photo: Jerry Pinto

Jerry Pinto is an Indian poet, writer and translator. His first novel, Em and the Big Hoom, won several awards, including The Hindu Literary Prize, the Sahitya Akademy Award, Crossword Book Award (Fiction) and the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes (Fiction).

His biography of the Bollywood actress, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, won the National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema. His novel, Murder in Mahim, won the Valley of Words Award for Fiction and is to be made into a film.

Jerry also translates works from Marathi to English. His translations include Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar and Daya Pawar’s seminal Marathi autobiography Baluta. His other works in translation include Mallika Amar Sheikh’s I Want to be Destroyed, Eknath Awad’s Strike A Blow to Change the World, Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste and Other Stories, Ganesh Matkari’s Half-Opened Windows and Vishram Bedekar’s Battlefield. With Neela Bhagwat, he has translated a selection of the Marathi Warkari women saints from the 13th to the 19th centuries in The Ant Who Swallowed The Sun. His first Hindi translation of Swadesh Deepak’s autobiography I Have Not Seen Mandu is expected this year.

Jerry is a board member of MelJol which works in the sphere of child rights. He is a trustee of the People’s Free Reading Room & Library, and the Sound and Picture Archive for Research on Women (SPARROW). He has taught journalism at the Sophia Polytechnic’s Social Communications Media course for nearly 30 years.

Talking About Books interviewed Jerry about his writing, translation and his books about two Bollywood actresses.

TAB: Your first novel, Em and the Big Hoom, describes what it is like to live with someone with mental illness. It is a theme you also take up in your collection of short stories, A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind. What drew you to this subject?

JP: I don’t think it is much of a secret that my mother was diagnosed as bipolar at some point in her life. (This was one of many diagnoses.) I suppose one went back to the old saw: Write what you know. In some senses, this was true. I knew what it was like to live with someone who was bipolar. In some senses, this was never going to be true. Knowledge of that kind is fleeting, evanescent, unstable. It comes in flashes and may illuminate a particular moment, may guide a certain response or it may light up the landscape. (With this last kind, I can only say: the landscape changes too.)

I can’t even remember setting out to write a book about mental illness. I wanted to write a book. I wanted to write many books. I wanted to be known as that peculiar thing: a writer. I wanted it so much I prayed for it regularly. So I wrote and wrote and wrote and that is a story I have told many other times and when I edited, this was what emerged.

When Em and the Big Hoom was released, I had promised myself that I would throw myself behind the book. I would not refuse an invitation whether it came from a reader’s group in a small suburb or a bookshop who wanted me to speak on Saturday at 2 pm. Many of these readings turned into encounters. People shared their stories. They wept to talk of the brother incarcerated, the mother silenced, the uncle made to sleep beneath the staircase. I was awed by this response and I was also alarmed. I am not trained to handle this kind of release. I mentioned this to a woman friend who said: Tell them to write about it. It seems to have helped you.

And so I began to tell people: Write.

One of them, Parvana Boga Noorani, wrote and said: Now what, Jerry?

Out of those two questions, The Book of Light flickered into existence.

TAB: I’d like to ask about your work as a translator and the process of translation. What do you bring to it as a writer? How much freedom do you have within the boundaries of the original text?

JP: I bring everything I am to all that I do. I don’t know how else to answer that question. Perhaps the small advantage that I have is that I have written fiction and non-fiction, and I have written thousands of words so I bring all that to the work at hand.

Freedom? I suppose there is some freedom. But I believe in fidelity to the original. I know it is impossible but I believe that it can be a guiding principle. (In much the same way as one might choose to make honesty a guiding principle and yet never achieve total honesty.) Because when one starts with a translation, one has already begun the process of moving away from one’s self and into the self of another. This process is incomplete—although it seems unnecessary to say that, for I paused here and tried to think of a process that can be called complete when it involves two people. But it is a valuable process, to leave one’s ego at the door when one enters the space of translation. Now the voice of the text becomes the guiding voice. It is a voice that is familiar, it has already spoken to you in the moment of reading, in that first discovery that this is a book you might like to translate, but it is now another kind of voice. In the first encounter, it was seductive and welcoming. In this encounter, it is harsh and unyielding. Each word refuses to obey, each line you write becomes clumsy when compared to the original. Now the language of dream (English) has encountered the language of pilgrimage (Marathi/Hindi/Urdu/Konkani), and they refuse to coexist. In this nightmare moment, you are contending with two linguistic traditions, two world views, two faith traditions, two cultures. And in order to forge some kind of peace, you enter the terrible time, the creation of the first draft. You have nothing to guide the building of this, no sense of the outcome, not even any assurance of its success. But you make it anyway because others have made it before and surely they have felt this too, this sense of inadequacy, this terror of Scylla and Charybdis, this regret for one’s hubris in even trying, this desire to run back to what is known…

If one gets past this, one has a first draft, then a second draft, a reading, a third draft, another reading and then if each one of these hurdles is cleared: a manuscript.

TAB: Your non-fiction includes biographies of two Indian actresses, Helen and Leela Naidu, about whom we don’t know a lot. Why did you choose these women in particular?

JP: To be flippant, I might ask: Why not Helen? Why not Leela Naidu?
To be humanist, I might ask: Is any one life more important than any other?
To be logical, I might ask: Shouldn’t one write about women people don’t know about?
To be polemical: Is this a question coming out of the fact that both of them were women?
But to answer the question about Helen, allow me to quote from my book:

“I was convinced that Helen is important. Although she is technically of Franco-Burmese descent, she was perceived as a white woman. She entered a world dominated by North Indian men who had very definite notions about how women should look and behave onscreen and she managed to redefine those requirements.

“Third, she was no ordinary phenomenon, no flash in the pan of male lust. As a dancer, she should have had a short shelf life. Younger women with firmer flesh and deeper cleavages should have usurped her position. It isn’t as if they didn’t try. Without thinking too much, I can name Padma Khanna, Aruna Irani, Komilla Wirk, Jayshree T, Meena T and Bindu. They came, they were seen in hot pants and bikinis and without body stockings, and time conquered them all. But from Shabistan (1951) to Bulundi (1981), Helen was dancing. She was there while the studio mastodons were shivering in the Ice Age; she was there when the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand-Dilip Kumar dominated the box office; she sashayed through much of the Bachchan era.

“This means that she defied the rules of gender. It is a truism that Hindi commercial cinema has no place for the mature woman. Women must either excite the front-benchers with their youth or bring tears to their eyes portraying suffering maternity. Men play by other rules. Jeetendra, for instance, has danced his way through four generations of heroines. Amitabh Bachchan played Raakhee’s younger brother-in-law (Reshma aur Shera), then her lover (Bemisaal, Jurmaana, Kabhi Kabhie, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Barsaat Ki Ek Raat) before turning into her cinematic son (Shakti). But Helen? She vamped three generations of men, Prithviraj Kapoor (Harishchandra Taramati), Raj Kapoor (Anari) and Rishi Kapoor (Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan). That’s a sublime feat of gender reversal, even if by the end of it her admirers wanted to avert their eyes from the ageing coquette.

“And then, when it should have been curtains, a final bedraggled last bouquet: another Helen was born. She resurfaced as a star mother and grandmother, performing only when her stepson Salman or the son of an old friend (Amitabh Bachchan’s son Abhishek) needed her presence to lend a special something to the cast.

“And it was a special something. Suddenly, the notion of Helen as a mother, the notion of Helen as granny, was laced with charm. No one grudged her the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Every reviewer had something nice to say about her cameo in Khamoshi—The Musical (1996). When she launched into a quick recap of one of her item numbers in Mohabbatein (2000), we were enchanted by the sudden po-mo break from the realist narrative into a history of one of the actors. Helen was back and we loved her more than ever. She had achieved what few manage; she had become an icon.”

And as for Leela Naidu, she was my friend. She wanted someone to help her write her life. She asked the poet Adil Jussawalla if he thought I might be interested. He was too wise to ask. Instead he told me a story that involved a naked Russian count and a Swiss woman sipping camomile tea. I was hooked and soon enough, Leela and I began to work together on a life that took in Franςois Truffaut and M. Cartier the jeweller, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and the Hong Kong action film industry, a world of Iranian filmmakers and South Bombay poets.

TAB: In addition to being a writer, you are also a poet. What inspires you to write poetry?

JP: I think it might be the closest thing to what I want to do. I think it might be the thing you never get good at. I think it is a healing and a savagery to the self. It is living.

TAB: How do you juggle all the different forms of writing: journalism, poetry, fiction and non-fiction? Which of these brings you the greater satisfaction?

JP: On the days that I am lucky, words come. On most other days, I ease them out. Sometimes I force them. But I write. Often I don’t know when I begin whether I am writing a poem or a short essay or a short story. My next novel tentatively titled, The Loves of Yuri, began as a short story. A Bear for Felicia began in a moment of terror when a friend told me how they had sold the family teddy bear to pay for her mother’s hospitalisation. I don’t know where the next one will come from. I don’t know what satisfaction it will bring. I write because that’s what I do. I love writing. It brings me close to myself.

TAB: What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?

JP: You are never going to succeed if you don’t start. So start. And start now. Don’t wait for the right phase of the moon or the perfect pen. Write. And then do it again and again and again until you have written. Then edit. Write drunk, edit stone-cold sober, as Papa Hemingway said. Kill your darlings, as Faulkner said. Stop reading this right now and go write.

TAB: Writing as you do in so many genres, and the way you approach each one, is fascinating. Your translation of works from Indian languages into English has made them available to a wider audience. On a personal note, I’d like to say that I loved Em and the Big Hoom, and am delighted you wrote about Helen, an actress I’ve always admired but did not know much about. Thank you, Jerry, for this interview.

Read my review of Em and the Big Hoom.

Go to Jerry Pinto’s website.

3 thoughts on “Moving easily among different genres: An interview with Jerry Pinto

  1. Pingback: Em and the Big Hoom: Jerry Pinto – Talking About Books

  2. Sophie

    Surroor, I do believe the best translations come from novelists and poets, just as Jerry Pinto is.

    Again, bravo for leading such a fascinating interview from an author I didn’t know about.
    The process of writing is mysterious, elusive, sometimes horribly harsh, and I really enjoyed Pinto’s straightforward and honest answers.

  3. suroor alikhan

    I’m glad you enjoyed the interview! He’s a fantastic writer. You should read Em and the Big Hoom. I loved the way he writes about mental illness, with a lot of humanity and understanding.

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