The Booker Prize may have boosted the profile of Indian translations but it is hard to make a living doing it, says author and translator Jerry Pinto

The author has ended the year on a high, authoring four books, including two anthologies

Updated - December 26, 2022 05:07 pm IST

Published - December 23, 2022 09:30 am IST

Author Jerry Pinto in Mumbai, October 2022.

Author Jerry Pinto in Mumbai, October 2022. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Jerry Pinto gave mathematics tuitions at 16, and bought books from that money to savour and devour. Prolific in poetry, prose and translation, he has ended the year on a high with his coming-of-age novel, The Education of Yuri; a book on the founders of Mumbai’s Chemould gallery, called Citizen Gallery; and two anthologies, one of which he co-edited with Madhulika Liddle. In the increasingly fertile space of Indian translations, Pinto is a consistent pioneer. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Question: What was the genesis of your writing career?

Answer: I think I would not have become a writer had it not been for the intervention of my friend, Rashmi Palkhivala. She urged me to write and kept pushing me until I overcame my diffidence and ego — yes, it is possible to be diffident and have a monstrous ego at the same time. She took my first scribblings seriously, typing them out, editing them and taking them to various newspaper offices, so that I would not face the rejection of which I was afraid.

I was then a writer of funny pieces, middles they used to be called. And then one of my first editors, Hutokshi Doctor, wrote a note to ask Rashmi whether this Jerry Pinto would like to do some other writing. She put inverted commas around my name because she thought it was Rashmi’s pseudonym. Few writers had agents in those days. And I was launched upon an unsuspecting world.

Q: In ‘The Education of Yuri’, Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawalla have roles to play. Were they friends? How did they come to figure in the book?

A: People tend to identify cities with buildings and natural history. I tend to think of cities in terms of the people that make me want to go there. So when I wanted to talk about the Bombay I knew in the 80s, I wanted to talk about the poets who were really significant in my development. There was a great openness about Nissim Ezekiel and a terrifying rigorousness to Adil Jussawalla. I remember once walking down the street and meeting Gieve Patel with another man. He said, ‘Hello Jerry, this is A.K. Ramanujan. We’re going to see Nissim’, and I smiled and said I was a great admirer of his poetry and his translations and then I went off to do whatever stupid thing I had to do. Now, I think back and I could have kicked myself. I should have asked if I could have joined them.

Q: Translation projects — do they come to you or do you choose?

A: There is very little money in translation because very few people choose to buy translations. This is the bald truth of the matter. Publishers may be more willing now to publish translations, but they have a limit on what they can pay you because the market determines that. This means that you are not paid a living wage for translation work. This means that you must choose to do it. This means, in turn, that you must subsidise your translation projects with other work. And so, yes, I choose the ones I want to work on; or perhaps the books choose me. Because I did not think after doing Cobalt Blue, my first translation, a novel by Sachin Kundalkar, that I would be doing others. And then Baluta by Daya Pawar presented itself, the first Dalit autobiography, so how could I not?

And then Vandana Mishra’s charming, intimate memoir that cast a lovely light on 1950s Mumbai became I, the Salt Doll; then came When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul, stories like bullets; and Eknath Awad’s Strike a Blow to Change the World, a Dalit political memoir of many textures and hues. There was the Mumbai savviness of Half-Opened Windows by Ganesh Matkari and the intensity of Mallika Amar Sheikh’s I Want to Destroy Myself.

In a gym in Mahim, I was ambushed by Neela Bhagwat singing a Muktabai bhajan and we began a journey that ended in The Ant Who Swallowed the Sun. I read Marathi novel Ranaangan by Vishram Bedekar with fascination; a romance between a young Maharashtrian man and a Jewish woman, published in 1939. That became Battlefield. Even the switch to translation from Hindi with Swadesh Deepak’s I Have Not Seen Mandu was unplanned. I read. I loved. I translated.

Q: Tell us about the Christmas book you edited?

A: Indian Christmas: An Anthology, which Madhulika Liddle and I edited together, was an idea that has been brewing for a while. My publisher and editor, Ravi Singh, and I thought it up one year and then decided we needed more time to work on it to make it inclusive like the festival has come to be. Stripped of all its commercial trappings, the story of the Christ child has so much to say to us today. He is a refugee. He is homeless. He is born without medical attention. And the first announcement goes to shepherds watching their flocks by night. No wonder Christmas has found its way into the heart of India.

Q: Tell us something also about Citizen Gallery, your book for Chemould gallery.

A: Ten years ago, Kekoo Gandhy died and I felt like a small promontory of the island city of Mumbai had fallen off into the Arabian Sea. Kekoo and his wife Khorshed worked tirelessly to promote the cause of modern Indian artists when the powers that be said their works were only fit to hang in the toilet. They were citizens in the true sense, taking part in every sphere of political and social activity. I was given complete access to the family and the archive. I made my own discoveries too: Khorshed’s championing of tribal artists, Kekoo’s campaign to get Mumbai a National Gallery of Modern Art, their interventions after riots ripped through the city in 1992-93… I was proud to be the biographer of such a couple.

Q: Prose, poetry, journalism — what are your preferences and personal delights?

A: The preference is always for poetry, the self-definition is poet. But when the words come, they determine the form in which they come. I’m not talking about the journalism that I do or the writing that I do when I am working with NGOs like MelJol or the People’s Free Reading Room and Library. That kind of writing has predetermined formats and although one can push the envelope a bit, it can only go so far because there are so many stakeholders. But when it is writing that comes from where nerve meets sinew, then I don’t think I am in total control. Sometimes, it just seems like the words make up their mind what they’re going to be: poems, prose or purple parodies that must be put away forever.

Q: Why are there such few poetry publications in English despite a growing spoken word culture across the country?

A: I believe poetry publishing is for bravehearts and those who truly believe in the healing power of literature. I find the real work is being done in small presses across the country while the major publishing houses act like parasites, only putting out big anthologies which exploit poets and don’t pay. This is shocking to me. As someone who haunts pre-loved bookstalls, I see how few books of poetry ever leave the homes and hearts of first owners. Poetry doesn’t sell, they say. I say it does; it takes longer but it stays longer.

Q: Advice to a young poet?

A: I am going to be boring and say, read lots of poetry but not on the web. Buy books of poetry. Memorise as many poems as you can. Don’t be in a hurry to publish. Those poems will come back to haunt you. And please take care of yourself. Poetry is dangerous business.

The interviewer is cultural activist, philanthropist, businessman, and founder of Prakriti Foundation.

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