ast week, nine writers across the world received a surprise call from Yale University. They were informed that they had won a prestigious book award in recognition of ‘their literary achievements or potential’ and that a cash prize of $150,000 would follow.
“My sister said, ‘Are you sure this isn’t a joke? Don’t tell anyone until it’s confirmed. You have some strange friends’,” says Jerry Pinto, Indian author and one of the recipients of the Windham-Campbell prize. “Then she said, ‘Don’t share your bank account. It might be someone phishing’. But it wasn’t.”
Established in 2013, with a gift from the late novelist Donald Windham in memory of his partner, Sandy M Campbell, the prize recognises writers from any country who write in English. This year’s writers are from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland and India, and were chosen in three categories: fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Jerry was chosen in the fiction category. He is known for his award-winning novel Emand theBig Hoom and several children’s books; his works includes poetry, biographies, books on Bollywood, and the translation of Baluta , the autobiography of Dalit writer Daya Pawar, among others.
The Windham-Campbell prize has no submission process, making this unique in the fact that it is not pushed by publishers, agents, or the authors themselves. A group of writers, academics, critics, librarians, booksellers, editors, theatre producers, directors, former prize winners, and other experts make two nominations per person. The work of the nominees is then shared with a three-person jury comprising jurors from within and outside Yale University. The jury selects five finalists in each category; the final decision is then made by the prize selection committee.
Calling it the “fairy godmother of all prizes”, Jerry Pinto describes the moments after winning the Windham-Campbell prize as surreal. He was checking his email to see if his students of journalism, at a city college where he teaches, had submitted their final assignments when he received an email from the programme director of the prize, Michael Kelleher, asking for his phone number. A missed call and another phone call later, Pinto was “totally gobsmacked”. The two had met at the Jaipur Literary Festival where they shared a cab back from a party and got talking. Michael told him about his work. “I remember ruminating over the awards back in my hotel room and thinking, ‘I hope they go to someone deserving’,” recalls Pinto.
What were his thoughts on discovering that he was that deserving candidate? “I would like to think it is the undiluted genius of the work. But whenever I think of the hundreds of writers out there and the awe-inspiring books they produce, I am filled with sheer delight. But then I think, okay, it was my turn and here it is,” he says.
A landmark moment in any writer’s career, this is the point when truth must seem stranger than fiction. For Pinto, whose novel Emand the Big Hoom is semi-autobiographical, this may be felt even more acutely. But he asserts that fiction has demands that real life cannot fulfil. “Which is why,” he adds, “When something happens that does not seem to conform to the ordinary, the quotidian, our response is something like, ‘You know it could have been a scene from a film’ or ‘My life would make a best-selling novel if only I had the time to write it’. But that’s the point. To write, you must stop living in one realm, and step into another. This realm is an odd space in terms of time: it is the past re-imagined and the future half-conceived.”
Pinto’s own literary past has been a journey of sorts. Denying sole responsibility for his work, he claims that ‘it took a village’ to get to this place, implying the role played by family and friends. “I think it’s been exhilarating because I just got very lucky with my friends,” he says. Artist Jehangir Sabavala was a friend, as is Mehlli Gobhai, who has been a great influence on Pinto’s sense of the visual. “If you can use one colour to suggest the others, why use the others?” Mehlli Gobhai once asked Pinto when they were looking at a particularly vibrantly coloured painting.
Other influencers, he states, are giants or to-be giants in their fields: Arundhathi Subramaniam and Ranjit Hoskote as poets; Chirodeep Chaudhuri and Ashima Narain as photographers; Shanta Gokhale as a translator and columnist; Naresh Fernandes as a journalist; Rudi Heredia as an academic; Ravi Singh as an editor, and many more. “I listen and I learn and I absorb endlessly from conversations with them. (This is of course not to mention the disembodied friends, the writers who populate the virtual village of my mind.) I am the sum of my traces.”
This September, there will be a ceremony for winners at Yale and a literary festival to showcase their work. In the larger literary village, India could take a leaf out their book by improving its support and infrastructure for writing and the arts. To begin with, believes Pinto, we could try not to terrify our writers into silence, and try to encourage dissent and debate, instead. “We could see every book as a point from which a conversation could start rather than a moment around which another procession, another slogan, another burning, another attack could start. We could try to hold our peace with those we disagree with.” The rest, he believes, will follow. “Otherwise,” he says, “We will have to go from having literary festivals to literary funerals.”
Meanwhile, the story of an Indian family in a Mumbai neighbourhood, struggling with a member’s bipolar disorder, finds resonance in America. Considering that there is, clearly, an interest in contemporary writing from India, could Indian writing do with better promotion internationally? Yes it could, says Pinto, but he asks the same of our international reading. “How many Nigerian writers do we know? How many Indonesian writers do we read? Speaking Tiger has just launched an international writers list; that’s good. I hope that will open our eyes. And when we open our eyes and our pockets and our libraries to the world, that’s when we can expect the world to do the same for us.”
In a world that is far from borderless today, prizes like the Windham-Campbell Prize, and literature itself, transcend and bridge borders. “Every book,” agrees Pinto, “Is a bridge. In these times, the more books you read, the more you will know that we are all the same, that our commonalities outweigh our differences, that our hurts and hopes and our fears are the same.”
Literary recognition is one thing but to be richly rewarded financially, in a field not known for its generous remuneration, is quite another, and heartening to hear. For now, Pinto believes that he can park his “middle-class middle-of-the-night fears” about money. He finds it a bit odd to have people write and say, ‘Now, you’re rich’. “I think: you don’t know what rich means, do you?”
Life will go on as usual, of course. “This morning, I went down and bought sour limes because we ran out. Now I will write some pages of my next book, wash some clothes, translate some pages of the next work I am translating and then go see a friend,” he says, adding that he would like to think that this is exactly what he would have been doing had the award gone to someone else. “I like to think this but I know I am not the same person I was before the award was announced.”
In his novel Em and the Big Hoom , the Big Hoom would try to prepare the narrator and his sister Susan for the world at large, and the world of money. What would he and Em have said to Jerry’s receiving this prize? The author’s reply:
“Em would have said: So where’s the party.
The Big Hoom would have said: Save some, invest some, spend some, give some.”
Janhavi Acharekar is the author of the historical novel Wanderers, All, a collection of short stories Window Seat: Rush-hour Stories from the City, and the travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa. The city of Bombay/Mumbai features prominently in her writing
To write, you must stop living in one realm, and step into another. This realm is an odd space in terms of time: it is the past re-imagined and the future half-conceived
Jerry Pinto says we should not terrify our writers into silence, and try to encourage dissent and debate