September 19, 2021

KITAAB

Connecting Asian writers with global readers

“Words and the music of words are closest to my heart.” – Jerry Pinto (Poet, Author, Translator)

10 min read

Team Kitaab is in conversation with award-winning writer, translator and poet Jerry Pinto where he speaks about his love for writing, his inspiration behind all his work and the changing scenes within the publishing industry.

Jerry Pinto is an award-winning writer and translator based in Mumbai.

His works include Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (2006), which won the Best Book on Cinema Award at the 54th National Film Awards, Surviving Women (2000) and Asylum and Other Poems (2003). His first novel Em and the Big Hoom was published in 2012 and won The Hindu Literary Prize that year. It was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize. Pinto won the Windham-Campbell prize in 2016 for his fiction. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2016 for his novel Em and the Big Hoom.

He has translated several books from Marathi to English including Cobalt BlueBalutaWhen I Hid My Caste and I, the Salt Doll. His collection of poems, Asylum and Other Poems appeared in 2003. He has also co-edited Confronting Love (2005), a book of contemporary Indian love poetry in English. Some of these poems are to be found in Reasons for Belonging; Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets edited by Ranjit Hoskote. His poems are also to be found in Fulcrum Number 4; An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics (Fulcrum Poetry Press, 2005) edited by Jeet Thayl; in Atlas; New Writing (Crossword/Aark Arts, 2006) edited by Sudeep Sen; and Ninety-nine Words (Panchabati Publications, 2006) edited by Manu Dash.

Having recently read and enjoyed Pinto’s poetry collection Asylum and other Poems & I want a poem and other Poems by Jerry Pinto, Team Kitaab had the opportunity of interacting with him and knowing more about him.


Team Kitaab: Jerry Pinto is a poet, novelist, short story writer, translator, as well as journalist. You were so many hats. Which one of these is the closest to your heart? Or do they all come together to give you a creative outlet?

Jerry Pinto: Words and the music of words are closest to my heart. This, I think, is a magic but it is an everyday magic that allows us to communicate with each other and mystify each other. The ways in which words arrange themselves come later. When I begin to write, I am never constrained by form. The thought I have, the idea, is set free by words but as soon as the first word is set down, it begins to narrow the infinite possibilities that existed before one begins to commit oneself. I often say to my students, the first word is the first constraint. It demands a second word.

A ‘the’ brings a noun with it; you may delay the noun with an adjective or more but the noun arrives like death and taxes, an ‘I’ brings in a verb. And as more words come, they begin to demonstrate what you are doing. They tell you what you want to say and to whom. And in the best-case scenario, you simply follow and they lead you to the word artefact you wanted. There are many other scenarios, of course: word as will ‘o’ the wisp, word as maleficent drain for the heartswamp…

Team Kitaab: Your first book came out in 2000. Its been close to more than two decades to your journey where you have witnessed the publishing industry in India very closely. It has undergone some massive changes, especially in the last decade. How do you feel about these changes?

Jerry Pinto: I am told that things have changed. I don’t know what this means. I don’t understand publishing because it is a business and were I a businessman, my life and my loves would be different. When I was writing my first book, back in the last century, I did not think I would ever be able to make a living, writing books. Bombay, the entrepreneurial city has a phrase for it: side-business. This was something I also did. To make a living I taught mathematics and worked as a cultural journalist. This was enough and it was a treat.

The young people who come home with MFAs may have a good chance of making a living by writing but most of the time, this is writing that is dictated by someone else. If you are writing a series for an OTT platform, for instance, you can make a good living but you will end up writing to specifications. To get up in the morning and to write what you want to write, to write it as you want to write it, to experiment with language, to play with words, to bleed ink…I think Utopia might have room for this. 

Team Kitaab: While we all know the need for translated literature, there is still a certain hesitancy around it among publishers. What do you think could be a welcome move for translated literature in India?

Jerry Pinto: I no longer see much hesitation here.. In my experience, publishers welcome translations. They know they will not sell very well but there is a moral superiority to the whole publishing thing that is the payoff. 

The problem is not with publishers. I will be honest. The problem is with readers. Indian readers do not read translated works as much as they read other books. At the Samanway literary festival some years ago, the translator Gillian Wright suggested that we might be able to sell more translated books if they did not carry the translator’s name anywhere on the cover. I think what she meant was: Don’t tell them it’s a translation; they might buy it as an English book then.

Does this shock you? Go look at the cover of a Marquez novel. Where does it say ‘Translated from Spanish by…’ Go look at a Kundera novel. Go look at a Tintin comic. The fact of the translation is skilfully concealed.

But all these translators make a living from their work. Indian translators are paid peanuts for their translations. They do it because they care. And that circles back to the moral high ground. Nothing wrong with the moral high ground but it does give off a stink in the noses of those who do not ‘supposes their toeses are roses’. And so we have a great deal of mediocre translation which gives translated books a bad name which circles back to the readers being unwilling.

Where is Alexander the Great when you need him to deal with another Gordian knot?

Team Kitaab: You have tried your hand at all genres – murder mystery, biography, non-fiction, drama, poetry, children’s fiction, etc. Is there any genre that there on your wishlist but you haven’t been able to write for various reasons?

Jerry Pinto: No such genre. Because if I am tempted, I do it. Sometimes I do it very badly. When Em and the Big Hoom came out, a friend said: It needs to be a play. I said: Okay. She said: Write a script. I said: Sure. I wrote it and sent it to her. She said: We have to talk. That meant, I knew, that I had got it badly wrong. But then she got busy with other things and so that fell through. Then another friend, also a respected theatre director, wanted to work on it. He said: The script was terrible, He suggested we should write it together. We tried but he got busy. But what came out of all this was: Jerry Pinto cannot write plays.

Okay.

Should have stopped me, right? It didn’t. A friend asked me if I would help with a beautiful piece of journalistic writing that he wanted to be turned into a play. I worked on it. Two theatre people loved it. One said he would direct it as soon as the play he was doing was off his hands. He hasn’t so far. But maybe one day?

Moral: You can try. You should try. You might be bad at it but if you have good friends they will tell you so. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying again. 

Team Kitaab: In a lot of your works, Mumbai comes across as your muse. Even on the covers of your poetry books. Was that intentional?

Jerry Pinto: Book covers? They should be left to the experts. There are many book covers that carry my name which I do not like.  But my friend the poet Adil Jussawalla once said to me: “You can learn to live with any cover.” Quite right. As for the poetry book covers, I love them. I saw them and I loved them immediately. It was the same with Murder in Mahim, the lovely tonal greys, the sea, the two young men looking out at the immensity of the ocean, so tiny but each with huge dreams.

As for the city as my muse, this may be because it was where I was born and where I have spent so much of my life. It may be because it is the fountainhead of stories. It may be because the sea allows it to dream all the way to Africa and all the way to the South Pole. It may be the coast that brought the gifts of merchants and madmen and missionaries. It may be the laziness that makes Mahim so special and central but then it is Mahikavati, the place of miracles. It turned me into a writer. 

Your writing, be it your prose or poetry, are strong reminders of the fragility of human nature and also the inner strength (or resilience) that makes us who we are. What role do emotions play in your writing? Like when you chalk out a character/ a scene do you also chalk out the emotions?

I chalk out a lot of things and then discover that none of them quite works on the page.  I begin with an idea for a short story and it grows into a novel. I begin with an emotion: anger, so often anger, and I find it cannot be sustained. I begin with a stick figure and if that stick figure acquires a voice, a credible speaking voice, I know I’m safe. I think voice is important. I think voice is central. I think talking is central. Keep the words flowing and we might have a slim chance of understanding one another. 

Team Kitaab: Talking about your popular work Em and Big Hoom, how difficult/easy was it to write a fictionalised version of something inspired by personal experiences? Any tips that you could share with writers who want to write their memoirs but are worried about how they will be perceived?

Jerry Pinto: All writing is hell. All writing is a pleasure. The ratio keeps shifting. The feelings change. Writing Em and the Big Hoom was the toughest thing I had ever done. It was also the easiest because it was all in my head. It had been in my head for thirty years. It had been refined over twenty-plus drafts.

But here’s the thing about the family story. Who owns it? Everyone owns it. It was lived together. Whatever it was, happened. But then as you write about it, you begin assigning roles. You begin to suggest motives. Now your family may have something to say about this. So what will you do?


I would say: Commit your first draft. Refine. Polish.

Then show it to those who are around you and get their reactions. After that: your call. You get to decide whether you will stand your ground or tear up your manuscript. That’s called being an adult. You get to do things and you get to endure the consequences of what you do. 

Team Kitaab: If one were to go by your introduction on your website, you are an accidental writer. Would love to hear about how writing grew on you (and continues to do so to date!).

Jerry Pinto: I do not think I would have become a writer had it not been for the gentle persuasion of Rashmi Palkhivala nee Hegde. But that’s a story I have told many times. Writing didn’t grow on me. It came pouring out of me. I discovered almost in the first few days of starting to write that it was what I wanted to do. I found a home. It was a home built of words: immensely fragile, immensely enduring. I love it here. 

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