When Jerry Pinto released his first novel, Em And The Big Hoom, in 2012, the general reaction in Mumbai’s literary and media circles was “finally”. Since releasing his first book, Surviving Women (a guide for men post women’s emancipation), in 2000, Pinto had been so prolific in his writing of non-fiction books, essays, poetry and newspaper and magazine columns, all in a style ideally suited to creative storytelling, that it seemed obvious that he should write a novel, and it was a surprise for many that it took him so long to.
Em And The Big Hoom was a memoir in which he recounted what it was like to live with his manic-depressive mother, whom he called Em. It was a critical success, winning Pinto the Hindu Literary Prize in 2012 and Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize this year. It also sparked conversation about mental ailments in the country and encouraged many who had lived with the mentally ill to begin talking about their experiences. He compiled some of their stories into an anthology called A Book Of Light.
Running through much of Pinto’s work has been a fascination with the city of Mumbai and Bollywood. He co-edited Mumbai Meri Jaan, a collection of essays about the city with Naresh Fernandes, and received praise for his biographies of two Hindi film icons, Helen (Helen: The Life And Times Of An H-Bomb), and Leela Naidu (Leela: A Patchwork Life).
To interview Pinto as solely a writer would be impossible, for he is equally well known for his ruthless editing of anthologies and publications, his passionate lectures at colleges and, now, his diligent translation of Marathi books into English. At the Crossword book store in Kemp’s Corner, Mumbai, he told us how playing all these roles enhances his writing.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
You have said that your first few drafts of Em And The Big Hoom read like books by other writers. Do you have to consciously check yourself and ask if you are sounding like someone else?
Anxiety of influence is a very potent, very real thing. But I think sometimes that we worry a lot about the greats. I believe that all those titans—(Salman) Rushdie, (Amitav) Ghosh, (Leo) Tolstoy, (Franz) Kafka—these people are in your bloodstream. You have imbibed them and they will end up coming out in some way. The challenge is to make them your own, to learn what they have taught you and to use it to strengthen your voice. I worry about sounding like my contemporaries. If I find my writing is sounding like Ranjit Hoskote, or Arundhathi Subramaniam, my peers and friends, that is when I have to start editing myself.
There were just 20,000-odd words out of 750,000 from your original manuscript of ‘Em And The Big Hoom’ that you felt happy with and which you formed the final version out of. What was it about those words that you liked?
Papa Hemingway talks about that shit detector a writer should have. I think it’s the reader in the writer who invents the detector and keeps it alive. I think I have become discerning about what is good and honest writing and what isn’t because of 45 years of reading. I’ve been reading since I was 5 and I’m 50 now. Till I was 30, if someone told me a book was good, if the book was canonical, I’d read the whole thing. But after 30, I began to realize that I was in charge of my reading list and there was so much to read out there. So now I give a book a hundred pages or so. If it hasn’t hooked me, I go on to the next one. This is no judgement on the book; it’s about me and what I want to read.
Reviewing also helped; how does one say what one is feeling. How does one pin down the amorphous and the fuzzy feelings one has and say clearly what one thought and felt.
And also the self has coalesced a bit. You stop wanting to sound like someone else, like a sage, or an intellectual. You want to say what you have to say clearly so as to reduce the chance of it being misunderstood. I like to think of my writing voice as being close to my speaking voice, not the same thing, never the same thing. The speaking voice has so much latitude, so much of the editing happens in the listener’s ear. But the greatest compliment is when a friend says something like: Hey it was like sitting and listening to you talk.
You have written fiction, non-fiction, children’s books and poetry. Do you have to consciously change your writing style when you are switching between formats? Do you decide the style of a book before you begin writing it?
I write more or less the same way whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction. I hope to sound like myself. The only time I sound different is in my poetry. There is a different Jerry, a more stately, eloquent version, who has his voice in my poetry. That is because of the nature of poetry. Or because of what I think is poetry. Maybe because I am most insecure about my poetry.
In Em And The Big Hoom, a lot of the story involves the protagonist asking his mother, Em, about her life. Did you decide on that device, or did it evolve naturally?
Most of the time, I just write a lot and then see what works. My aim while writing Em And The Big Hoom was to write a thousand words a day. There was always a temptation to look back over what I had written after every chapter, but I resisted because I’d done that so often that I’d sabotaged several books by rewriting the written rather than writing the unwritten. So this time I wrote on to the end. Once I’d finished, the real work began, of looking over the material and seeing what worked and what didn’t. Rewriting takes me much longer than writing, and it’s a more painful process because you can now see clearly how far you are from genius, how much you rely on craft.
While writing Em And The Big Hoom, I tried writing from various perspectives. I even tried writing it from Em’s point of view, but I’m not a good enough writer to get into the mind of a person who has a psychological disorder to create the semblance of disorder while keeping the narrative in order. In the end, I also realized that as families we know only what we are told about each other, and this is fascinating, this process of discovering who your family is and, therefore, who you are and so I used the conversation as a device.
What part of writing do you love most: the ideation, the actual crafting of sentences, or the satisfaction when you have finished a great paragraph, chapter or full book?
I love the first time an idea moves inside my head, when something connects to something else and I begin to smell the spoor of a story. I wish I could extend the metaphor, talk about the chase, but no, that’s not it. It’s like rolling things around in your mind, looking at them from different angles and enjoying it all. I love the writing even, sometimes you’re carried by the idea, sometimes you’re carrying it. Rewriting is the toughest part, but it is necessary. It is the most important part of writing. I think we all write; writers rewrite.
How do you stay motivated while writing a book for 20 years? Were there any points when you felt this was a project that would never end?
Oh often. Sometimes I felt I was not good enough for my material. Sometimes I felt I had no material, just a whole bunch of self-pity. As for staying motivated for 20 years, I didn’t and I wasn’t motivated all of that time. Murder in Mahim took about 20 months and there were times when I felt I had had enough of it too.
Tell us a bit about the forthcoming book, A Murder In Mahim.
I was asked to write a short story for Mumbai Noir (an anthology of stories about the dark side of Mumbai, edited by Altaf Tyrewala). So I invented a retired newsman, Peter, and his friend, a policeman, Zende. I wrote a short story and forgot about it. Peter and Zende got another lease of life when Gauri Vij, as editor of Time Out Mumbai, asked if I would do a story for their annual. And then Ravi (Singh) came up with the idea of a collection of stories. I started writing some more and then suddenly I had this idea of Peter and Millie seeing their son in the newspaper at a gay rights parade. Of course, there’s also a murder at Matunga Road Station and he might be mixed up in that as well. I have been rewriting ever since.
Are you open to making changes based on your editor’s advice?
I have had such a run of great editors, I can’t believe it sometimes. There was Hutokshi Doctor who taught me so much about adding nuance and layer and building a good sound structure to a story. There was Anil Dharker who was open to ideas in a way few people can be. There was Radhakrishnan Nair at Man’s World who made it possible for me to write in discursive fashion. But most of all, I had Ravi Singh, who edited my first book,Surviving Women; it was also his first book at Penguin. We’ve grown together, Ravi and I, and if he says ‘Cut it’ I don’t even think twice, I cut it. And if he says rewrite, I grind my teeth and I snarl at him in my mind, but I rewrite. I don’t think I like rewriting to someone else’s order. Because I believe I send something in when I’m done with it, when it’s in good order. But I also know that a good piece of writing, a good book specially, needs two or three pairs of eyes. And in Ravi, I have an editor who has no agenda other than improving my book so that I will appear like the individual genius who wrote the book.
How does being a good editor help you as a writer?
When I was at Man’s World in the mid-2000s, the editor and I would put together three whole magazines between the two of us, each month, month after month. Often we’d commission stories to writers with great ideas, but who could not put their ideas into the right structure. I’d sit with their stories and look at individual bits and figure out how I could shift them around to create a coherent narrative.
I think it’s good for writers to have a map in their head before they begin writing—a general structure of where which idea should go.
You deliver lectures about writing, at literature festivals and in colleges. Is it easy to keep discussing writing and then also actually do it? Does it actually help your writing process that you talk about it so much?
I’ve actually been thinking about how talking so much about writing affects my actual writing. I am not too worried about over-thinking my writing, but I do have a rather superstitious fear that if I talk too much about writing, then I may jinx myself, and some of the things I say and am convinced of will stop being true.
For example, I always say that I will never run out of ideas. But recently, I met a senior author and asked her what she was working on. She said, “There’s nothing left to say.” I quivered when I heard that. To think that the well could one day run dry is scary. But I tell myself: You’ll find something else to do. You can walk dogs, teach mathematics, wash dishes. There’ll be some way you can contribute and I try not to worry about it.
How do you manage to balance time working on so many projects and also writing articles for newspapers and magazines?
People have this impression that I am extremely busy, but I don’t actually feel busy. I find I always have the time to do things I want to do. It’s all about managing your time really. My rule for balancing projects is simple—spend the first hours of your day working on your passion project and then begin other things. When I was working on Em And The Big Hoom, I told myself that it had to be my priority as no one else was going to push me to finish it but myself. So I decided I would first finish 1,000 words of it every day and only then do other things, such as write articles for the press and earn a living.
I work on multiple projects but I still have plenty of time to relax, meet friends and roam around the city.
How and why did you decide to begin life as a translator?
It’s going to sound rather virtuous, but honestly I started translating because I thought I had a moral obligation to. I knew there were these great books out there in Marathi that no one was translating into English and thought someone had to make them available to more readers.
I had done around seven or eight translations before I translated Cobalt Blue (by Sachin Kundalkar), but they were poor ones. When I read them, they didn’t make me feel anything close to what I had felt when I read the original versions. But when I was done with Cobalt Blue, I thought it was actually doing the book justice. So I called Sachin and asked him if it was all right with him if I published the translation.
I have now begun to enjoy translating for two reasons. First, it is less lonely than writing. There is another voice in the room, the voice of the person whose work you are translating. Second, it helps you learn so much about your first language. You have to think about how you are going to use English to mirror thoughts expressed in another language. That is challenging and interesting.
Since Cobalt Blue, you’ve translated three more Marathi books. How has translation changed you as a writer?
Translation forces you to stretch the English language and discover new things about it. There are some words which do not cross the border. Right so what do you do? You look for the aura of the word, what work was it doing. Now you must recast the sentence to reflect that aura, and that makes you think more about what you can do with English.
I have now begun translating Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha (I Have Not Seen Mandu) by Swadesh Deepak. He was bipolar and had a terrible breakdown and was hospitalised. He recovered and his friends urged him to write a book and what happened was this magnificent, flawed book. You can see that this is a writer of some achievement; you can also see that he is still not well. I heard about it because his son wrote a story for A Book of Light. When you read it, you can actually tell the writer is not well. I think it’s an important book for people to read, and while many might raise their eyebrows at me, Jerry Pinto from Goa, translating it, my only question is: who is the perfect translator? And why hasn’t s/he stepped up to the plate?
You’ve been writing for around three decades. Do you ever still think about why you write?
All the time. Sometimes when you walk into a book store, you feel like there really is no reason to write. There are so many great books out there, in so many different languages, why add to it? Even if no one wrote another book ever again, there would be enough good books around to last us forever.
The truth is that there are multiple reasons an individual decides to write. When I was young, I wanted to write because I loved reading and wanted to create the kind of books I enjoyed reading. Now I write because I want to write, sometimes I feel I have to write. It’s a habit, it’s a compulsion, it’s a need. And this goes out to all those who are having trouble finishing their books: no one needs your unwritten book, there are enough books already. But you should write it because you need to write it and because then, when you have written it out of your personal and individual need, it might go out and resonate with someone quite different, someone who will use your book in a way you could not have imagined.
Three works translated by Jerry Pinto
Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
Published in Marathi in 2006, Cobalt Blue tells the story of a brother and sister who fall in love with the same man. The man marries the sister, leaving the brother heartbroken, but then abandons her; she has a nervous breakdown. Sachin Kundalkar is better known as a director and writer of Marathi films, but critics were struck by how daring and visceral his first novel, published when he was just 22, was. Pinto’s translation was published in 2013.
Baluta by Daya Pawar
Thought to be the first autobiography in Marathi by a Dalit writer, Baluta, originally published in 1978, leads us through Daya Pawar’s struggles as he tries to focus on his education in a squalid part of Mumbai, faces exploitation from landowners in his village and deals with alcoholism in his family and community. Pawar belongs to the Mahar community, who were considered untouchables. Pinto’s translation was published in 2015.
I, The Salt Doll: A Memoir by Vandana Mishra
Vandana Mishra is one of Mumbai’s most successful theatre actors, having performed plays in Marathi, Gujarati and Marwari. I, The Salt Doll, her autobiography, tells the story of how she was raised by a single mother and her two stints as a stage actor—one before marriage and one after the death of her husband, 22 years later. The translation released this year.
Writers at work is an occasional Lounge series on the craft of writing.