FEATURE: LITERARY REVIEW/THE JERRY PINTO INTERVIEW



‘One per cent writing and 99 per cent rewriting’


Jerry Pinto speaks to SHEILA KUMAR about craft 
and the catharsis involved in telling the story of 
a mentally ill mother.
Jerry Pinto:Exploring all avenues of writing.Photo: Vivek Bendre
Jerry Pinto:Exploring all avenues of writing.Photo: Vivek Bendre
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.

WHAT NEXT?

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.

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreview/one-per-cent-writing-and-99-per-cent-rewriting/article4278321.ece

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