Jerry Pinto is a writer and translator based in Mumbai. Among his six books, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb is a biography of the Bollywood actress Helen Khan, née Richardson. Last year his first novel, Em and the Big Hoom, was published by Penguin in India and the UK, and chosen as one of Tank’s 100 Books of 2015. In March 2016, shortly after Tank spoke to him in Jaipur, he was awarded a Windham-Campbell Prize by Yale University.
Tank Tell us a little bit about your work, if that’s not too open a question.
Jerry Pinto I started writing in newspapers when I was 21. I’m a slow developer, so my first book was a sort of humorous self-help manual for the Indian male called Surviving Women. It was supposed to be a not-too-serious how-to book, about how not to scare them off, how to realise you’ve fallen in love, how to get over being dumped, having sisters and having mothers. It seemed like common sense stuff: just be nice, listen, don’t talk to them about cricket, but ask them about their interests. Kind of average stuff, but it’s been selling steadily. A large majority of the buyers are women who read it to their men, which is nice. It’s kind of a compliment.
I’ve done lots of other things, anthologies and poetry, et cetera, and when I was about 45, I wrote a novel called Em and the Big Hoom, which won a couple of awards. It has been translated into French, Italian and Marathi. It’s also been published in the US, but it went quietly into that good American night because it was out with Penguin. In India and the UK Penguin is big and powerful. Penguin in America is a quiet little bird that flaps noiselessly along.
I translate now from Marathi into English and Hindi into English. I’m independent; I’ve worked for the last ten years from home. I get to lie about in my shorts and watch Slovenian actresses slitting their wrists on daytime TV. I’ve not much money, but who knows, it might come. I live in hope.
Tank Em and the Big Hoom is about mental illness.
JP I grew up with a mother who was bipolar in a time when no one even recognised what bipolar was. I remember asking my grandmother what happened to her and why is she like that, and they all said she was having a nervous breakdown. I was told that if I read too much and talked too much, then I would have a nervous breakdown too. So what was required of me was to not read and to not think. Which is a really good way of mentally castrating a little boy, but I sneaked around by reading a lot and thinking a lot and writing a lot. I started writing the book when I was 16 because I thought, I have to get this out of my system. I learned the word “catharsis” and when you learn a word like catharsis, it’s so beautiful and so apt that you think it must be true. That once you let it all out, then it will be all gone and you will become a better, cleaner person inside. So I started writing madly over my vacation and by the end of it I thought, I must have a book, this book must be done. I went to a friend and asked him, “How long is a book?” Because I didn’t even know how many words there were in the book at the age of 16. He took a pen and he folded a page over and counted by hand the number of words on the page and we came to the conclusion that there were about 30,000 – so it was very clear that I was writing a big volume that would take on love, death and the universe. Then I went home and re-counted my words. I had written 1,700 – all summer I had worked at it and it was 1,700 words long. After that I routinely, laboriously, wrote. I was always writing from a place of self-pity and the horror of it all.
Then India began to change really dramatically and because I was, by then, politically conscious, I began to see inequality, I began to see the horror of communalism, which for us translated to hatred of immigration. I began to see what a privileged life I was leading: I had food, clothing, shelter and an education in English. I had all of these tools for a better life and I was moping around because my mum wasn’t well, like a complete prat, a complete idiot.
Tank You do a lot of translation and I was wondering, as a translator, how do other languages figure in the broader literary scene of India. How does Jaipur fit into that? Do other festivals fit in?
JP We have a festival in Delhi called Samanwa, in the Habitat Centre. It’s a festival of languages. Everyone comes to it, from the Dogri writer, to the Assamese, to the Malayalam writer. The English writers come too. English is the elephant in the room; English is that strange man standing outside your door and in one hand he has a passport to America, England, Australia or Canada – all these places where you can have a great life, where your aspirations can be fulfilled – and in the other hand is a pair of red-hot tongs, which he will push into your mouth and rip out the mother tongue with which you speak. English surrounds you with privilege in India. Ask any taxi driver or waiter what they want and they will answer that they want their children to speak English fluently, like a river, flowingly not hesitantly – not as they speak English. And if you ask what will become of their mother tongue, they shrug and say that will always be the language of the heart, the language in which they will speak to their grandparents, but English will ensure their success in the world.
This moment represents a moment of huge choice and transition for all of us. For us to truly participate in this global, sanitised world, we must know your language; we must know it on an equal level, or perhaps a little better than you. You know when you’re reading a novel about America, you better know some baseball. What is that thing about “he stole first base”? You’d better know that if you’re taking your date to a pizza place, then that’s because you don’t have money; whereas in India pizza is what the middle class and upper middle class eat.
On another level, you know that language is life. If you’re a thinking person who is speaking in English, you’re drifting farther and farther away from the mother tongue. You’re not reading its books anymore; you aren’t speaking it very much; your children certainly don’t. After I translated one book, the author’s daughter said, “I am so grateful Jerry has done this because now my son can finally read what his grandfather wrote.” That’s the loss. At the same time, I am a great believer in freedom of choice and freedom of expression, and so I certainly believe that every one of my brothers in India has the right to choose English if he wants to speak it. I can’t stop him because I think his mother tongue would be better for him. That’s patriarchal, that’s like me deciding what his life should be like. That’s not on, so how do we deal with this and how do we negotiate this?
If you think about India for a moment, without those rose-tinted glasses, just look at us. Look at Jaipur, where we are, and know that it is in Rajasthan. This is a state dominated by two facts: one is that most of it is desert and the second is that it is a warrior community – these are its two narratives. They speak Hindi, Marwadi and many other tribal languages. South of here is Gujarat; the story it likes to tell of itself is that it a trading community. Gujaratis see themselves as businessmen; they see themselves as hard workers. They speak Gujarati, Kutchi and variants of Hindi. Down after that is Maharashtra and they have Marathi, and then there’s Goa, which has Konkani. Everybody has a different self-image; everybody’s got a different language; everybody’s got a different cuisine; everybody’s got a different culture. So when we say “Indian”, we don’t know what Indian is, no one can define what Indian is. There is no language. I mean, India had Christians before Rome was Christian. Jews came to India; they lived in India, then they chose to leave to go Israel because it’s a better quality of life than here – anything is a better life than here. But they were forced to leave for Israel because no one wanted them out here – we haven’t got a tradition of anti-Semitism.
That is also the imperilled Right now. There is a rising tide of intolerance, a rising tide of, “If you’re not like me, then you must be against me”. We are a rising nation and we only want to hear wonderful stuff about ourselves. My question to myself is: what can I do about this? I want to help, but I can’t build bridges or work in a hospice. That’s not who I am. But what I can do is translate, because I think of translation as building bridges. I hope to take something of what it is to be a Maharashtrian and set it down on the Gujarati side. I think translation has done that for me. It has answered the question: what is it like to be you? And to understand what it is like to be you is the first step in acknowledging our common humanity.
I am a writer; I want to write. I want to do my novels, my poems. I want to translate because... Sorry, I’m listening to myself and thinking, “You’re ranting, Jerry, calm down.”
Tank What is the political meaning of an event like this?
JP I was sitting at breakfast with this young man who’s a classical singer. He’s also a scholar and he’s also a Brahmin Hindu. Brahmins are the top of the pile.
Tank Is this T.M. Krishna?
JP Yes, we get on very well because we’re both tearaways, we both indulge in friendly abuse. I started thinking about it because sitting in front of me was T.M. Krishna, next to him was Roopa Pai and at the back was Salil Tripathi. All these names will not say anything to you, but to me they say Brahmin. I wonder how many of the Indians here are Brahmins. The [lower-caste] Dalits who are are here have been invited as Dalits. The Brahmin is still a dominant category, a dominant force in India. That is caste inequality at its best. Many of them are very liberal, they have chosen to step away from privilege and chosen to question privilege in deep and meaningful ways. But then they hold panels without women – how can you discuss any issue without a woman?
JP I always see the Jaipur Literary Festival as a gossamer scarf, which acts as a magic carpet. Suddenly, once every year, this magic carpet flies into Jaipur and settles down in the Diggi Palace and all kinds of wonderful book events happen, very good book events, things that blow my mind. People who speak so fluently and eloquently on subjects that you couldn’t give a shit about, but which you start to care about so you go and spend 700 rupees on a book that you will never read. Then after five days the magic carpet rises, floats off and what is left in Jaipur is a chasm of booklessness. It’s not a city that has responded with a book culture. There is no big bookshop in the city except for Crossword. It’s a bit strange, that after so many years of such intense interaction with a festival this size, you can’t say there is a bookshop that reflects the city, that tells you what kind of place it is.
This is about as political as I can get. §