Jerry Pinto tells Swati Daftuar what The Hindu Literary Prize means to him.

From over hundreds of books, it was down to the last five, and on February 17, Jerry Pinto finally took the podium to accept The Hindu Literary Prize for 2012 for his first novel, Em and the Big Hoom, one of those rare books that make you want to stop the next person and recommend it to them. Pinto arrived at the festival already well-loved and regarded by his fans, and left it a winner in more ways than one. Here he gives us a little insight into not only Jerry Pinto the writer, but also the man.

Some time has passed since you were announced the winner, and you’ve had a moment to process the news. Can you recall the moment now and tell us how it felt?

Just before the award was announced, I was listening to Susie Tharu and thinking, “She read my book. That’s enough.” I am a great fan of her work and I think the volumes of Indian women writing she co-edited are among the literary masterworks of our times. I was looking at Pradeep Sebastian and thinking, “He read it and put it on the shortlist. I have always respected his reviews even when I have not agreed with them.” I was thinking about Anita Nair and Nilanjana Roy and thinking that they voted my book in and that should be enough. I was also thinking about Jeet Thayil’s first line in Narcopolis, and how I might think of giving that the prize were I a judge. I was thinking about how much I love Kiran Nagarkar as a person and as an author and wishing I didn’t have to be rooting against him for myself. I was thinking about Easterine Kire and Anjum Hassan and how much I had enjoyed their works. I was thinking about losing and winning and what these things mean and about Kipling’s fabulous line about treating those two impostors, victory and defeat, just the same. Then Tharu said something about my novel being written in English as a vernacular language and that made me happy. I thought: I can live with that and then immediately I thought but I could live with that and the award too.

Em and the Big Hoom was, in a way, your very first book, considering that it was conceived over 20 years ago. Your first book has won you this award. Tell us a little about your emotional connect to the book, considering not just the subject matter but also the fact that it was, in a way, your first step into the literary world.

Em and the Big Hoom will always be a special book, not just because it won The Hindu Lit for Life Award for Fiction 2012. It is my first novel and first novels are always special. It has become a catalyst for other book events; a publisher told a friend of mine that she had been flooded with similar accounts, some fictional, some real. And as for it being a first step into the literary world, I cannot imagine a novel getting a better response.

You were on the shortlist for the award, but you were also one of the festival’s panelists. You spent two days in Chennai, attending and chairing sessions. How was the experience? What have you taken away from it; the good, the bad and the ugly?

On the very first day, I was blown away by the letters between Rajaji and Gandhiji; the first letter that was read out made me so angry. Rajaji’s easy equation of the morality of the country and the morality of Gandhiji, his contemptuous dismissal of a woman…I found these difficult to take. And then Gandhiji replies, waiting for his turn, waiting to hit back and finds an excuse to talk about Tamil and its use as a language of communication in the family. Rajaji apologises for not using Tamil, but you can read between the lines. These are two men who are fighting vicariously and making up without ever mentioning the real problem. And you begin to like both of them, to see how much they care for each other. I thought Yog Japee was brilliant as Rajaji, controlling himself with an iron hand, holding himself in check so that the words could roll out and we could read into them the character of the man. I thought the selections from My Dear Bapu were impeccable.

I was chilled by the discussion on rape, chaired by Kalpana Sharma, and thought it linked up brilliantly to the moment when Vaidehi said that things had not changed since the time she started writing and that now the day was the night, that pralaya had arrived for womenkind. I enjoyed listening to my fellow poets and having breakfast with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in the swanky Spectra of the Leela Hotel. I felt sorry that I snarled at Varun Agarwal in the panel on popular fiction; he seemed like a nice fellow who was probably saying things for effect. Sorry, Varun.

But above all I enjoyed the audience and its irreverence and its engagement.

Tell us a little about Mahim ka Jerry? Has Bombay and growing up in Bombay seeped into your writer self, and have you, as a writer, borrowed from the city and its spirit?

Bombay is the city I cannot live in; it is the city I can never leave. I have never lived anywhere else except for a three-month stint as a Chevening scholar when I went to London. I remember landing in London and thinking, “Has there been a riot? Is there a problem?” That was because there was no one on the streets. Everything looked empty and chillingly eerie. Bombay invades me and evades me. It enrages me and repels me; but when I return home, I find myself relaxing. I find myself in control again. I know how to deal with this city in an instinctive way that I don’t know how to deal with any other city, even one so literate and lively as Chennai.

You’ve been a teacher for many years. Tell us about what that particular part of your life brings into your books?

I think teaching in India is generally an exercise in power politics. Most teachers seem to think that the only way to get a student to grow is to hurt her and break her and then remake her in their image and likeness. Most teachers leave little space for their students to grow and develop. I keep looking at myself and asking myself: have you become the teacher of your nightmares? Have you joined the ranks of screamers and shriekers and torturers and mindcontrollers?

I began teaching when I was 16. I taught mathematics then and discovered very quickly that most of my students were afraid of mathematics. Classically, the math failure was good at languages and at the social sciences, poor at science and math. So I realised that first I would have to erase the fear, then relocate mathematics in the sphere of language and art, then work on logic and some basic facts, and get them to be comfortable with mathematics. I got so good at it my students started getting 90s and so I began to get mechanical at it, and began to take more and more private tuitions. So I quit and joined a media company that pretended to be a newspaper and left after three years to start a dotcom…but a friend, Kaumudi Marathe, invited me to teach at the Sophia Institute of Social Communications Media. I had never attended any such course so I started asking my friends, Naresh Fernandes, Sameera Khan, people who had gone abroad and studied journalism how it was taught over there and what had proved useful. Then I did my own tinkering and came up with what is probably the most challenging course in journalism in the country, even if I say so myself.

Teaching keeps me on my toes. It makes me aware that if I am preaching X, I cannot be practising Y. It makes me aware that the youth are watching, as that magnificent commercial that The Hindu had prepared says.

You’ve said before that it’s not just Em and the Big Hoom, but every book you’ve written that is, in a way, autobiographical. Is that how you think you will always write, telling stories that carry a bit of you in the books? Or do you think all writing is a little autobiographical?

How can anything I write not be autobiographical? When I wrote Helen: the life and times of an H-Bomb, I chose to do it because of my early engagement with Hindi cinema. When I helped Leela Naidu write her autobiography, it was because I had met her when I was young and been charmed as much by her grace and beauty as by her kindness to a gauche journalist. When I co-edited with Naresh Fernandes Bombay Meri Jaan; Writings on Mumbai, it was because we both listed the city as our birth place, because we had met two decades earlier and become friends. Whatever I do, it is inflected by my choices; it is influenced by who I am.

So what is fiction? It is an account of the other autobiographies we would like to have. It is the writer on the couch of the psychiatrist, Dr Fiction, living out the lives inside his head. It is fiction when the writer tells you it is fiction.

And what is non-fiction? This must be collaboratively verified. It is a matter for law courts and journalism reviews, for litigation and slander and libel.

When I am asked whether Em and the Big Hoom is fiction, I ask: who wants to know? Only librarians and lawyers need to know. Readers? They respond to the story.

What do you think literary awards say to an author? Does it change him, for the better, or otherwise?

I got this one so I love awards. If I had not got it, I would have hated awards so I think this is going to be a biased answer.

Having said that, an award seems to be a way of saying: What you do is important. It is so important that we want you to go away and do some more of it. Here is some money so you can go and sit and think and write. Thank you.

I just received congratulatory emails from Easterine Kire and Kiran Nagarkar. That taught me that literary awards can make you better by teaching you how other authors can exercise good manners and civility. I hope to be able to be as big as they were.

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