Jerry Pinto speaks to Sheila Kumar about craft and the catharsis involved in telling the story of a mentally ill mother.
Jerry Pinto is a writer who explores all the avenues of writing that open before him. His resume includes teaching mathematics and journalism, writing television scripts, editing a travel dotcom, editing a men’s magazine, dabbling in corporate communications, writing poetry and a novel.
It is a good body of work, too, a list that includes Surviving Women, Bombay Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (with Naresh Fernandes), Asylum and Other Poems, Confronting Love (edited with Arundhathi Subramaniam), Helen: The Life and Times of An H-Bomb, Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa, Bollywood Posters (with Sheena Sippy) and Leela: A Patchwork Life (with Leela Naidu). Jerry’s first novel Em and The Big Hoom, published earlier this year, has received very good reviews. Excerpts from an interview:
You have the lightest touch ever in your writing, be it poetry, short fiction, long fiction, reportage. Does that come easy or does it need some calibration?
Thank you; nothing like a good compliment. I don’t think I have ever published anything that has not been fine tuned a little. Once in every decade or so, I have written something that I felt did not need to be touched up, worked on, tinkered with. But those are the minor miracles that actually happen to everyone. It’s the equivalent of the day when you can do no wrong, when the butter hasn’t melted into your toast and the lift is waiting for you and there’s a window seat in the bus. Most of the time, it’s one per cent writing and 99 per cent rewriting.
Let’s talk about Em and the Big Hoom? Why write about the severe affliction of someone so close to you? Was it some sort of catharsis?
Em and the Big Hoom was the first book I ever started to write. I must have been around 16 then and I had just learned the word ‘catharsis’. It seemed like such a beautiful word that it had to be true. (I was also reading the Greek philosophers at the time, half-appreciative and half-disbelieving). I thought I would write it all out: the grief, the fear, the rage. I would finish with all the unpleasant emotions attendant upon being the son of someone afflicted by mental illness and that would be it. I realised some 15 years later that it wasn’t going to be that easy. First, I had started on a career as a writer. In some senses, therefore, I was going to have to serve two masters if I wanted this to be a good book and not just an exercise in catharsis. That’s where the notion of craft comes in. With cathartic writing, you pour it all out in the hope that it will be better once you’re done. With writing — because you are a writer — you’re aware that the work begins once you’ve started committing words to paper, and then some.
So when people ask, ‘has it worked?’ I offer an image. Do you remember when you went to school with a huge bag and the straps cut into your shoulders? There was a moment when you eased your thumbs under them and moved them slightly outwards. There was a moment of incredible relief and then the bag started pressing into a new place.
Do you agree that the book is as much about the sufferings of Em (your mother) as how the narrator and his family (primarily, your sister and you) coped with Em’s condition?
India’s attitude to mental health is incredibly callous. We still use electro-convulsive therapy — what is called shock treatment — in almost every public hospital and many private ones. This turns almost everyone who has ever had some brush with mental illness into a survivor of a treatment that has been banned in most developed nations. But the rights of the mentally ill are not an issue in India. You can do what you want, say what you want, mock them as you want, depict them as you want and no one ever protests. Take Bollywood’s mental asylums with their lolloping lunatics, all played for laughs. If it’s not laughs we want, it’s fear. Here’s the stuttering psychopath, haunted by his past, who wants to throw women off buildings.
So where does the carer come in? How do we look at these ordinary heroes? Every morning, I get up and stand in my balcony and watch a middle-aged woman, slight of build, carrying her young son who wears callipers on his legs, almost fully-grown now. She carries him to school every day because we have failed her; society has failed her. There’s no bus, no access. But she’s not going to give up. She’s going to get him his chance. Those who care for the afflicted must bear the special pains and pleasures of their situation.
I found there was a certain deliberate distance between Em and the reader; a distance created by the narrator. It is a moving tale being told with no conscious effort to get the reader to like or empathise with Em. Was that the way you wanted to tell Em’s story?
Thank you for that. In a perfect world, we would all write the stories we like to read. I don’t like being manipulated when I’m reading fiction. I don’t like being forced to weep for Little Nell or Beth. I weep anyway but I don’t like it.
The rest is craft.
‘Ninety-five per cent fact, 95 per cent fiction,’ you said of the book. Could you talk about that intersection?
I don’t want you to think I’m hiding behind generalisations here, but what writing is not based on some autobiography? When I wrote Helen: the life and times of an H-Bomb, I did so because Helen was an intriguing figure who was often presented as a Christian in Hindi cinema. As someone who was born into a Roman Catholic family, representations of my kind naturally interested me. When I agreed to write Leela: A Patchwork Life, it was because I had met Leela Naidu at the very beginning of my career and she had been kind and gracious to a gauche young journalist. A Bear for Felicia was born out of a story told to me by my friend Rachel Dwyer and the fact that another friend, Ashima Narain, trusted me enough to ask me to write a script for her documentary about the poaching of sloth bears to make them into dancing animals. So, exactly, what is not an autobiographical book? This book, perhaps more than the others. Because it draws from what happened to me, to us? Yes, it does. But it is fiction.
Writing on film stars and films, then this jump into intensely personal territory… Was it hard?
It isn’t difficult. It isn’t easy. It’s what I do. I don’t think of my writing as coming from different parts of my head. Since I can’t explain really, I’ll offer you an image instead. Each morning I wake up and walk up to a huge wall, a façade really, composed largely of windows. Most of the windows have nothing going on behind them. Then I spot a movement behind one and I throw it open. And a poem comes blowing into the room, knocking over the bookcase and breaking my cut-glass decanters. Or perhaps it’s just a short story that comes picking its way into my room, and then curls in a corner and opens large eyes and glitters at me. Or it’s an army of invading ideas in the form of a novel. The glory of being a writer is that you get to choose who you are. Every day.
Are you really enraptured by Bollywood or more of an amused but very interested spectator on the sidelines?
I am both. When a film gets me, really gets me, I slide right into it. Then I’m not into ironic amusement or the analysis of sensitive enthymemes. I’m crying and laughing and my body takes the punch the hero does on the screen. But no cinema in the world, not Hollywood, not Iranian cinema, can turn out more than six or 10 of those films in a year. The rest are the stocking stuffers of cinema. But this is true of all aesthetic endeavours; there will always be much more bad stuff than good stuff.
Now, as someone who writes on cinema, I have to go and see what everyone else is seeing. That means I will see the next Salman Khan film. Here I will be the observer with the agenda. I am looking now at what kind of masculinity is on offer, how this is being received, what works and what doesn’t. I am ironic; I am distanced although sometimes, still, a laugh can be startled out of me.
But I also watch these and lament because I grew up with this cinema. I know it intimately. It is part of the way my neuronal pathways have been shaped because I watched a Bollywood movie every week. It pains me when Bollywood turns parochial or sexist, jingoistic or regressive. Not that it wasn’t always this way; it seems much more naked now. Or am I the more suspicious consumer? Hard to say.
I am editing the selected prose of Adil Jussawalla. It’s like eating chocolate with a spike of something cooked up in an alternative laboratory by an underground scientist.
Do you think the printed book is going to go down in the brave new world of e-publishing?
Who knows? Did anyone foretell the rise of the mobile phone? Did anyone see how that might liberate the poor? Did anyone see how that might fry the brains of the middle-class kid? But I’m willing to make this prediction. The form of the story may change. The medium of the story’s transmission may change. The processes of dissemination may change. But our love of the story will stay. Because that is where we discover our common humanity.