Jerry Pinto: We need to tell our own stories in our own manner

I recently interviewed Jerry Pinto for a feature for The Goan. Sadly, due to my word limit, I couldn’t incorporate everything from the interview, but it’s a very good one. So I decided to post it on my blog. Here you go! And a big thank you to Jerry Pinto for sparing me his time.

In case you haven’t read Em and the Big Hoom yet, please do. It’s a touching story and beautifully written. I found it very difficult to put the book down. I even went to the extent of not reading the newspaper because I was addicted to the book. More than Em, I was in love with the character of the Big Hoom. I wonder if such guys even exist in today’s day and age.

Jerry standing by Vinit Bhatt

Congratulations on winning The Hindu Lit for Life Prize for Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Books, 2012). How does it feel to bag this prestigious award?

Thank you. It feels great. It feels like a vote of support. It feels like someone is saying, “You should go on doing that stuff.”

 Did you always want to be a writer? What/ who was the inspiration?

When I was growing up, writing was not seen as a career choice for boys who were academically gifted. Boys who did well were asked, “So what do you want to do, medicine or engineering?” And given this binary, you end up saying, “medicine” because no one has suggested that there might be several hundred options out there. This meant that I was on autopilot growing up, not thinking clearly about who I was and what I wanted to do and how I wanted to live my life.

So now that I am a writer, now that I have some assurance that what I write will be published, now that I have some feeling that there may be people who want to read what I write, I can only say that I feel blessed. I am privileged. I owe my writing career to two wonderful women: Rashmi Palkhivala, my first agent and Hutokshi Doctor, my first editor. Rashmi would often urge me to start writing for the newspapers; I said that I could not because I did not know whether my ego would be able to take rejection. (I was 21 years old at the time.) She said that she would protect me from it. I said I did not have the time to type my writing out; I was teaching mathematics for a living then. She said that she would. Finally she said that she would not mention writing again if I did not start. So I did start and the words came in a flood. I wrote a funny piece every day, I wrote two a day. I wrote them standing at bus-stops and in the night. I wrote and wrote and she typed and typed and took them to the editors. When the eveninger, The Mid-day accepted 12 out of 14 pieces, my response was, “Which were the two they did not like?” Buddha was right, there is no end to desire. So that was how I began.

But here I must also add that I did not think, when I was a journalist, that I would ever be able to write a book. And then I had the great good luck to get Ravi Singh as an editor and publisher. Someone has to give you courage, someone has to stand behind you and root for you, someone has to say, ‘I think you can do this if you try’. Unfortunately, our world seems to consist of people who say, ‘Do you really think you should be trying to do that?’ and other such comments. 

You’ve written poetry, and you’ve also written about Bollywood personalities (non-fiction), and then a novel. What did you enjoy more and why? Which medium was most challenging?

Is there anyone who has a single life? I can’t think of a single one of my friends who defines himself in a single unitary way all the time. In fact, I believe if you look at the life of the average working woman, you will see her shapeshift her way through the day: from lover to mother to banker to daughter and back and around, back and around all through the day. The definitions are generally conveniences; the world wants to see me as a journalist; I want to see myself as a writer today. Tomorrow, I may change my self-definition. The world will be slower to follow but that is the fate of anyone who wants to say, like Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes”.

So I believe that there is something of one of the multitudinous me-s in everything I write. Every writerly journey begins when you throw open a window and look into yourself. Which window is your decision as a writer. What you see from that window, likewise. What you choose from the welter of you, you-ishness, you-ment, you-ry, ditto. The glorious thing about fiction is that you can mix memory and desire and the only thing you have to worry about is whether it works or not.

What are you doing when you’re not penning down words?

I read. I watch movies. I teach journalism at Sophia Institute of Social Communications Media, which is probably the most grueling post-graduate course in the country at the Sophia Polytechnic. I help with the Jehangir Sabavala Foundation. I help with MelJol.

Could you shed some more light on the role you play at MelJol? And what drew you to this cause?

When I was a full-time journalist, I read a piece about a child helpline that had been set up in Mumbai. I was happy to hear about it and got the number and wrote out a small cheque. The entire team turned up to say thank you. And I met Jeroo Billimoria, a powerhouse of a woman, a serial social entrepreneur, who has since set up six national and international NGOs. She coopted me quickly into volunteering for Childline. No, I did not man the lines, nor did I go out and pick children off the street and take them to hospital. I volunteered by writing their manuals and editing their material. I did this for several years until the Ministry of Social Empowerment made Childline into a national project. I told Jeroo that I thought Childline could do without me but she asked me whether I would help with MelJol, an NGO that worked in the sphere of child rights. I was fascinated and intrigued by the notion of the rights of the child and now I am Executive Secretary to the Board of Directors, which is a rather magnificent title. It only means that I get to watch as we try to shake up the classrooms of India, try to build social responsibility, financial literacy and entrepreneurship into the curriculum. I get to visit rural schools and talk to children there. I get to talk to some of the finest minds in business and banking and the social development sector. It’s not charity; I don’t do charity. I do what I think I can to help create a world in which I would like to live.

Is there any other Bollywood icon you would like to write about?

No.

How much time do you devote towards writing and reading every day?

I write about a thousand words a day, in various forms. Once I’m done, I’m done. But the thousand words are my duty to myself. They are important. They are the most important part of my day.

Tell us about Jerry, the Goan. How do you connect with Goa?

I connect with Goa as the insider-outsider. This is because Goa is inside me. It is part of my identity. I accept it and sometimes celebrate it. Goa is outside me. My father moved to Bombay as a boy and worked in the city as an adult. Bombay became my home but my claim on the city is only an accident of birth. So the connection with Goa is somewhere subterranean, somewhere at the level of gene and mutation. I don’t know how to describe it except as I wrote in the introduction to the anthology of writings on Goa I put together, Reflected in Water (Penguin, 2006): I know that each time I visit, Goa surprises me a little. I know that each time I leave, I feel I have left a little of me behind. And I know that when I reach home, back to the slick allure of the city of my birth, it is a part I can manage to live without. 

What’s coming next from your desk?

The next book is a translation of Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue, a novel in Marathi. 

What do you think about Indian writing in English today?

I believe we need to tell our own stories in our own manner. I believed this when I was writing the novel, I believe it now after the award. I believe that each author can only strive to represent his fraction of the total experience of being human. I believed this when I started out my writing career and I think I will believe it many years from now.

Photo courtesy: Vinit Bhatt

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