Saturday, March 26, 2016

'If a plumber said she had plumber's block, would you condone it?' - a Q&A with Jerry Pinto

[Did this interview for Scroll]

Introduction: Earlier this month, Jerry Pinto’s 2012 novel Em and the Big Hoom was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize, which recognizes the work of English-language writers from around the world, across three categories: fiction, non-fiction and drama. Pinto, a journalist and professional writer for close to three decades, has written or edited many other books across categories, including the National Award-winning Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, Surviving Women, Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa, and the children’s books Monster Garden and Phiss Phuss Boom. He speaks about the prize, his body of work, the many challenges facing a writer, and his newfound interest in translation.

Was this prize more gratifying in a way because you didn’t know you were in the reckoning? How rare that is in a time where authors are constantly expected to be in the public eye, competing furiously, playing the double role of marketing person.

The Windham-Campbell Prize is the kindest of prizes. You don’t know you are in the running. You don’t know that you’re on the shortlist. You are protected from that opening-of-the-envelope moment. Your life goes on pretty much as it always has and suddenly someone rings you up or emails you with the good news. I think that this is one of those rare prizes that doesn’t seem to need to turn the writers into gladiators at an arena, that isn’t about betting and odds-on favourites, there’s no bitterness about not being nominated or your book not being sent for it…nothing. I understand why the other prizes do that sort of thing. Sponsors aren’t coming along handing out all that lovely lolly for the good of writing. They want the bang for their buck. No issues with that. I see what the logic is but I don’t like it. Which is why I am so honoured and so happy to have received this one.

Em and the Big Hoom has been so widely acclaimed – it is the most high-profile of the many books you’ve done – and yet it has its roots in a personal and distressing subject, your mother’s real-life illness. It had a tortuous journey too, taking years before you got it in its final shape. Is there something bittersweet or unnerving about winning a big prize for this particular book?

I have all kinds of feelings about this book even now that it has passed into my history as a writer. To begin with, I wrote it so many times, I often felt that it was some kind of burden that I was fated never to put down. Then I had to talk about it again and again because it was born into the era of literary festivals and I tried my best to go wherever I was invited because I wanted to give the book my best push. I was deeply involved with everything, including the cover, which features my artwork thanks to the kindness of Bena Sareen and Ravi Singh at Aleph.

Oddly, when I was writing it, I never thought it would become the catalyst for conversations about mental ill health. I thought it was a novel. I have no problems, may I say here, with people talking about it as if it is non-fiction. Because that seems to be an accolade, a novel that reads like it happened.

But then the readings seemed to turn into encounter groups or something very similar. People would get up and tell stories about a friend who had said he would kill himself so often that no one believed him when he was sitting alone in his apartment with a bottle of rat poison; about the girl-next-door who vanished because she liked to sing and walk about naked even though she was in her late teens; about the brother incarcerated in his own room for five years because he heard voices. I did not know what to make of these testimonies. I tried to make the space as non-judgemental as possible but then that is not always possible. Besides, I am not a trained professional and I was wary of being taken for one. And the good Lord knows I’m not a paragon of virtue.

So a friend suggested that I encourage them to tell their stories, to create a book out of these survivor accounts, of people who have someone in their world with a different mind. And Ravi Singh now has the manuscript for A Book of Light which should come out from Speaking Tiger later this year.

I have been honoured and humbled by the honesty and the self-implication that so many of the writers have shown. They are torch-bearers and they’re showing us that it isn’t six degrees of separation between people seen as normal and people seen as ‘mentally ill’. It’s often one degree away or zero degrees. For if there is a person who has not suffered a moment of imbalance, of madness of one kind or another, then you might have finally stumbled on to a rare case of fully functional normality, so normal a normality that it should be pathologised perhaps, called a normalism.

The prize must be very pleasing purely at the level of the honour and recognition involved, but the money isn’t a small part of it. You have been quite vocal – in conversations, Facebook statuses and so on – about writers not getting paid as much as they deserve (whether they are independent journalists or authors struggling for decent advances from publishers). Do you see that changing anytime soon?

I hope it will. I trust it will. I wouldn’t put money on it. Here’s the thing. Every year, the journalists of my acquaintance march into their editors’ offices and argue for raises. They cite the usual bunch of reasons: the high cost of living, the lure of better pay in other jobs and other professions, how much hard work they do. I do not think one of them ever says, ‘And when you’re budgeting my pay hike in, why do you not think about raising the rates we pay our freelance writers?’ I didn’t do it when I was a full-time journalist though I have to say that when I started a travel dotcom, we paid writers well, we insisted that every staffer should travel, we worked on equity.

But writing as a skill is hard to quantify. So the editors have to fight hard to tell the moneybags men that they need to pay X more because she writes better. The moneybags say: ‘Then get someone else, na? My chichi has a flair for writing and she won’t even charge, she’ll be so happy to have her name in print. Shall I give you her number?’ There are entire magazines run on that kind of writer and this supply and demand situation always causes a problem. Many years ago, a freelance journalist called Parag Trivedi invited a whole bunch of journalists to form a union. It didn’t work.

Right now the best way to get paid well in India is simple: you should have a non-Indian passport, preferably a foreign passport and you can ask for a dollar a word. And editors will pay it too, some of them.

The other problem is that so much of freelance writing bases itself on old friendships and old relationships. How do you tell a buddy that s/he can’t afford you? How do you say, ‘Look, why don’t you simply hire a bunch of young people and then spend the rest of your life rewriting their work, training them and then losing them to the competition?’

For the rest of us, it’s the usual four-rupees-a word to ten-rupees-a-word. I must make an honourable exception for the Malayala Manorama group that actually pays well and pays on time and does not make one jump through hoops by creating an invoice, signing it, scanning it, sending it back and then waiting.

You have been an incredibly prolific writer… poetry, fiction (for both adults and children), non-fiction (on subjects ranging from cinema to gender relations), translation, anthologies, columns, reviews. Does any one sort of writing count as “relaxed, take-a-break writing” for you – the sort of thing you find easy to do when things aren’t going too well?

Okay, secret. It’s almost always fun. It’s almost always misery. The idea is the fun thing, the movements in the head, the connections, the links, the oh-that-might-also-fit-there sensations. Then there’s the first fine flush, that lasts for the first draft, when it’s always great to start off again, to open a notebook and return to word-making and world-making. Then comes the tough bits, the pruning, the editing, the rewriting. That takes me about twice as much time as the writing. I wrote three drafts of Murder in Mahim and I thought it was done. I came to Delhi inoffensively and met Ravi and he said, ‘Just a few more things I want you to do’ and I am holding on to the myth that it’s just a few more things when it’s not, it’s another draft because you change a word and that changes a sentence and that changes a paragraph and suddenly like a chain of bicycles, everything is in a heap and you’ve got to start again.

A related question: Isaac Asimov, discussing his prolificacy, once said that it helps to be working on different projects simultaneously because it makes writer’s block less likely; if you get fatigued with one sort of writing, you move on to something else. Has your experience been similar?

Yes, it works like that for me as well. I am always working on a poem. I am always working on some non-fiction. I am always working on some fiction. I am always working on some translation. I am always editing some student assignments at the SCM department where I teach journalism at the Sophia Polytechnic. I have a manual right now to look at for MelJol (an NGO for empowering children). I have a brochure to edit for a fund-raiser at the People’s Free Reading Room and Library. If you have several things going at once, you’re less likely to get bored of one thing. But there are often times when I will take a day off and only focus on one thing, such as reading a friend’s manuscript or editing someone’s translation or reading a draft.

But even so, writers’ block is a problem for me and I get over it by writing mechanically. I berate myself constantly. I say, ‘If you had a plumber who said she had plumber’s block, would you condone it? If you had a cook who said he had cook’s block, would you accept that he should not cook and you should go hungry? And if you are not as important an artisan in the creation of civilization as a cook or a plumber, you should not be a writer.

Then I start to write mechanically putting words down. They are dry desiccated words, words without meaning or significance, words without juice, over-used words forming into armies of clichés and I am often tempted to judge myself harshly, ‘You’re no writer. You’re just another hack’ but I write on. Now I am an ice-breaker and I pushing against the icefloes and soon, soon, it’s open flowing water and the words are back and now it’s dancing. But I have found that without the robotic writing, without the heartless-faithless-spiritless writing, you don’t get out into the open.

When I first encountered your writing, a lot of it was about cinema – the short-form journalistic stuff in particular, but also the Helen book which was so detailed and for which you watched dozens of films closely. What has your relationship with cinema, especially mainstream Hindi cinema, been like? And has it had an effect on your writing?

I loved Hindi films. I loved everything about them. But I could also see what they were not. They were as much vehicles for modernism and nation-buildings as they were Trojan Horses for patriarchy and cheap sentiment. Something about this encounter with popular culture shapes us in different ways, I think. Some people look at a title like Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye and think yes, yes. Some people look at it and think, patriarchal bullshit. Some people look at it and say: Oh is that so? Not the woman with the certificate but the woman who makes her lover happy? Some people say: The songs are good so let’s go see it. And then there’s us, the critics, the reviewers, the ones who stand at a distance, looking but also sighing.

I think many critics have said that Em and the Big Hoom showed I have a feel for dialogue. I think that might come out of my encounter with cinema.

Children’s writing in India used to be (possibly still is) characterized by people writing down to children – being pedantic, trying to spoonfeed them ideas and messages, undermining the value of a fun story imaginatively told. Tell us something about your own approach to writing for children.

Children are a nasty bunch. They’re completely led by their instincts. They don’t really care what’s good for them or bad for them. They want to read what amuses them. The problem is that they have no economic control over their reading. The books available to them are decided by adults, by librarians and teachers and parents and gift-giving aunties who choose improving books and pedantic books and message stories and the kids give up on reading and the cry goes up: Oh, they don’t read, children have given up reading. That’s not their fault, it’s our fault.

Next, children are monkeys. Monkey see, monkey do. If they see their parents coming home to slump in front of the television, that’s what they’ll want to do when they relax. If they see their parents hunched over a smart phone, that’s what they’ll want. Don’t blame the monkeys.

Finally, I don’t write for children. I write for me. When I’m done, someone, usually a publisher says: oh this is a children’s book because it has a teddybear in it. And then they sell it to the chaps, like Mr Hall and Mr Knight in that wonderful poem about the algebra text book.

As readers – or as consumers of your work – how are children different from adults? What have your interactions with young readers been like?

I try not to interact with children too much. They do your ego no good. “Did you write this book?” a girl asked me, holding up ‘Talk of the Town’ which I wrote with Rahul Srivastava. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s very boring,’ she said. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘You’re welcome,’ she said because she was a well-brought-up child.

Other great questions I have been asked: ‘Why aren’t you J K Rowling?’ and ‘Have you written any books like Captain Underpants?’ and ‘I don’t like the cover of this book. It’s too yellow. Do you have a pink book?’

As a teacher, what advice do you give to young writers who are struggling to find their own voice?

I tell them to read a lot, to be patient, to read some more, to write a lot, to rewrite a lot, to talk to people, to connect, to volunteer, to seek out experience, to try and see the virtual world as one possible source of excitement and not the entire world.

You have done a lot of translating in recent years. What stoked this interest, and what determines your choice of texts? Has translating changed you in any way as a reader and as a writer?

I always say that I wish other people would translate so that I could just sit back and enjoy what comes out in other languages around the world and in India. Now, around the globe, things seem to have sorted themselves out for the Anglophone world. Is there a book on early on-set Parkinson’s disease in German? It’s available in English. And every writer from Basho to Undset is available in English. But Baluta, a modern-day classic in Marathi, one of the first autobiographies by a Dalit? That had to wait thirty years. So we have so much writing around us but we don’t have enough translators.

So for me this is an urgency because it feeds into my view of a pluralistic diverse India, where we speak so many languages and live in so many different ways and we learn each day in the living of it how much we need to do to keep this wonderful country going. I began to translate because I was hoping to be a bridge-builder. That’s what translation does: it builds a bridge between two linguistic islands. Yes, languages are never islands; the bilingual already form footpaths at low tide between them and the sea around cross-fertilises them but permit me my metaphor.

What are the challenges in translating (especially translating a potentially controversial book like Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue), compared to doing your own writing?

Right now, Jai, it seems as if every book is potentially controversial, no? Anyone might be offended. Anyone can sue. Anyone can take offense. Anyone can rouse a community by saying, ‘S/he’s insulting us’ even when that Anyone hasn’t even read the book. So every act of bookmaking is now fraught with peril but how else will we fight the peril but with each act of civilization?

Right now the book I am translating is Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha by Swadesh Deepak. Deepak was a magnificent playwright whose Court Martial was performed across the country, in Kolkata and in Mumbai and in Delhi. He had a serious mental problem and tried to kill himself. He spent seven years in an agony of silence and fear. And then when he recovered, on the urging of his friends, he wrote Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. When I heard of this book—his son Sukant Deepak is one of the contributors to my anthology Book of Light—I was fascinated and when I read it I was completely enthralled. There is such a strange quality to the book; it has all the hallmarks of great writing and great mental unease. I have read nothing like it in any other language. Here is a bridge, I thought, a bridge between Hindi and English, a bridge between the world of those who are seen as mentally healthy and those who are seen as mentally unwell, a multipurpose bridge beautiful and ugly and mysterious and built at great personal cost.

How great a cost? After it was published, Swadesh Deepak rose one day and went for his morning walk and never came back. He has been missing since.

You told me once that you write on paper and then get it transcribed. Is that still the case? What for you are the advantages of such an approach?

My first draft is always hand-written because this helps me in a number of ways. I can type very fast and that isn’t always a good way to write: fast. I like to think I am part of the slow writing movement as I start work with pen and paper. I like to think that this gives me time to consider the line forming in my head before it is set down on paper.

I know it has taken you forever to get a smartphone. Are you becoming more tech-savvy, in terms of writing/editing a piece on a phone or some other infernal little device?

There’s a great section in Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. The Red Queen and Alice have been running and running and when they stop, they’re in the same place.

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

All I can say is I am from a slow sort of country.

[My review of Em and the Big Hoom is here]


  1. Loved reading his answers. Was he really as eloquent as it seems or did you need to edit parts of it to make it more concise?
    (I had previously read your review of the book, and even that scared me, so I avoided the book to avoid the heart-clenching quality of darkness, and the swings between happiness and sadness, but reading the interview makes me feel that I have missed out on something great).

    1. Aparna: this was an email interview, so really, I had very little work to do. (Won't apologise for that though, given how little I get paid even for pieces that I slog on for weeks! Like Jerry says here, writers and payments and hoops...)

  2. Thank you for this really nice interview from a man who is super humble and very charming. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival in Dec 2013. He told us how every Thursday, his parents gave him and his sister money to go and watch a movie. There was something about Pakeezah he also asked me since I claimed to know the movie really well. I think I answered correctly but it's all a bit hazy now.

    Em and the Big Hoom is a lovely book. It tore me apart when I read it for the first time and I've not had the courage to re-read it. I was heartbroken when it wasn't shortlisted for the DSC prize. He truly deserves the Windham-Campbell Prize!

  3. Thank you for a great interview. Will have to now hunt down Em and the Hoo. On a side note, I saw Maurice Sendak's last interview on Colbert and he said almost exactly the same thing about his books - that he wrote what he liked and then the publisher decided that they were children's books. Totally agree on the monkey see, monkey do thing too.