42 Questions with Jerry Pinto

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42 QUESTIONS WITH JERRY PINTO

In this series, we ask people the hard questions about things that matter – like unlikely romantic trips and fading, melancholic divas.

This week we talk to Jerry Pinto, award winning poet, journalist, and author. He talks about #377, #metoo, Helen vs Leela, the Chinese takeaway guy in Em and the Big Hoom, and reminds us of that heady, heavy word "thalassa".

WORDS BY THE CITY STORY TEAM

1. Are you a bad boy, Jerry Pinto?

I wish.

2. What is a Mahim boy trope?

His is the lament of the belly. Pao from Police Bakery. Chicken puffs from Crown. Plum cake from Bonita’s. Vadas from the cart outside Navjivan Society, Mori Road. All gone, all gone.

3. How many languages are you fluent in?

Zero. I claim English as the language of dream, Marathi as the language of pilgrimage, Konkani as the language of gilt and guilt, Hindi as the language of aspiration, and Urdu as the language in which it is possible to believe in words like panache, even if it is a word we borrowed from Latin where it meant a tuft of feathers.

And I am not saying this with false modesty. I was just reading Conversations with Borges (Seagull Books; Volume 1), and he was talking about how blanco-blanche (white) is the root word for black in English. How can one know any language? It fair drives me to despair when I consider how my day is near spent, and I still don’t know so much about English, the language my mother spoke to me in, the language in which my fantasies are born, the language in which I am most comfortable. So what chance have I with any other languages?

4. You’ve published translations of four books so far… Cobalt Blue, Baluta, I, the Salt Doll, and I want to destroy myself – which was the hardest?

Hello? I’ve published translations of Eknath Awad’s Strike a Blow to Change the World and Baburao Bagul’s The day I hid my caste and other stories since.

Cobalt Blue was the toughest because it was the first. Baluta was the toughest because it had poetry in it and words that don’t appear in Marathi dictionaries because they tend to be Brahminical. I, the Salt Doll was tough because it was a woman’s voice…you get the picture? It’s all just hard work but it is rewarding labour.

5. What was it like translating ‘Cobalt Blue’ under the shadow of Article 377?

Article 377 was the kind of law that does exactly the opposite of what a law should do. It turns people into criminals and tempts the police to venality. But when I was working on Cobalt Blue, I was simply wrestling with the language. The law and its animadversions were far from my mind.

6. What’s one of the hardest things (emotion, idiom etc) to translate?

Little grace notes. There’s ‘re’ in Marathi. What do you do with a ‘re’? We have a ‘reh’ in Konkani but it’s not the same. ‘Re’ has some measure of affection but a tiny hint of exasperation as well, at least in the way it is used to me. Consider ‘Vhaaychay’, the word in Mallika Amar Sheikh’s title. I want to destroy myself would have been a good translation of ‘vhaaycha’. ‘Vhaaychay’ is ‘I absolutely insist on destroying myself’, but then there goes the rhythm of the title.

7. Different places mean different things to different people but is there a part of Mumbai that reminds you of Goa?

Thalassa, thalassa.

8. Which was your favourite part of Mahim while growing up?

Thalassa, thalassa.

9. What’s changed irrevocably?

Me.

10. What hasn’t changed that you still love?

Thalassa, thalassa.

11. “People, even those who are in love with each other, can bore each other.” – Surviving Women (2000). Do you have a plan/advice for when this happens?

Remind yourself that the other person is also probably bored of you but the option of finding someone new, getting used to their quirks, working out a new equation, is infinitely more tedious.

12. You also said that going to the post office can be romantic. Give us three other unlikely (for most) romantic trips you can take in Mumbai.

  • Take a double-decker bus ride from Cuffe Parade to CST.
  • Take the ferry to Alibag and then come right back. Be silent and let the sea work.
  • Walk from Borivali National Park to Kanheri Caves. Walk slowly. Talk.

13. Do you get mail from fans about Em and the Big Hoom?

Yes. It humbles me.

14. How long did it take you to write it?

I say 25 years, but it took me all my life, all 45 years of living and learning my craft.

15. At the end of the book, there’s a man from whom you/the protagonist buys Chinese takeaway. Is he real? And does the place still exist?

Yes. He has warned me not to reveal his name because he says, “Now everyone will say, give us free, my Nana died, my Chacha died”.

16. We left our copy with a love note to a stranger in Florence. What’s the farthest the story has travelled?

A young man I met said he bought one of the early copies and tucked it into his backpack and read it on the way home and has never taken it out of his backpack, but he reads a little every day. I said, “Let me know when you finish?” He said he would. He hasn’t. So that copy may still be in motion. Or the young man may have forgotten that he said he would tell me, and it is now in a cupboard somewhere.

17. On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested are you in fading, melancholic divas?

Naughty, naughty. But on a scale of 1 to 10? About 23?

18. How does Mumbai treat folks who are getting older?

Like you treat shit on your shoe.

19. If you had to pick one – Helen vs Leela?

Must I? Well then, Leela, because we became friends, and when she died, I took her ashes to the sea with Selvam, the major domo who was with her at the end.

20. What’s one thing that surprised you while researching your book The Life and Times of an H-Bomb?

That Tamil film viewers thought she was a Tamil film star.

21. Could you recommend a book that talks about the people who walked back to India from Burma during WWII?

Yvonne Ezdani’s New Songs of the Survivors: The Exodus of Indians from Burma (Speaking Tiger), and not just because I have an essay in it.

22. Who is your favourite Indian film actress of all time?

I don’t believe in favourites. Or actresses. Aren’t they all actors now? But a good actor in a good role which fits her right is a delight. I’m thinking Meena Kumari in Pakeezah, Nargis in Mother India, Waheeda Rehman in Guide, Kareena Kapoor in Jab We Met, Kangna Ranaut in Queen, Shabana Azmi in Ankur, Smita Patil in Umbartha, Suchitra Sen in Aandhi, Rekha in Umrao Jaan, Jennifer Kendal in 36, Chowringhee Lane, Konkona Sensharma in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana…my list is endless.

23. Three words to describe Bollywood in 2018.
Going, going, gone.

24. Are you familiar at all with internet poetry? Is that what inspired Some Ways Not To Write A Poem?

What inspired Some Ways Not To Write A Poem was the hubris of believing that I can write a poem. I apologise for it.

25. What’s the most common mistake people make when writing a poem?

See answer 24.

26. Who is your favourite modern poet?

I have no favourites. I am several multiple thirsty selves whose thirsts can sometimes only be assuaged by Emily Dickinson, or by Ted Hughes, or by Nissim Ezekiel, or by Sylvia Plath, or by Ikkuyu (who was very, very modern) or by Basho or by Adil Jussawalla or by Muktabai (ditto).

27. What sort of music do you listen to?

Bollywood from 1950 to 1980, though I am beginning to have a sneaky appreciation for classical music, but I will not talk about that because that is to open yourself to the contumely of everyone who knows their ragas from their sagas.

28. What’s the cheesiest song you know all the words or dance moves to?

The cheesiest song: Happy birday to Pinkie, Pinkie.

29. Can you do the birdie-dance?

Only birdies can’t do the birdie dance because they have too much brain.

30. What about the Macarena?

Do I look that retro?

31. Which is your favourite bookstore in Mumbai?

Kitab Khana and Wayword & Wise

32. And your favourite cinema?

I don’t go to the cinema because other people go to the cinema and they behave as Indians behave everywhere.

33. What’s the best way to people watch in the city?

I don’t like people watching in the city because it confirms me in my worst nightmares.

34. What’s your favourite city in the world?

The one whose name is poison on the tongue.

35. Do little children like you?

Little children have great good sense.

36. As a teacher and professor, what’s the best thing you’ve learned from your students?

I have learned that if I tell them to do it, I should do it and as a result, I am, I think much more disciplined and much more rigorous than I used to be before I started teaching.

37. With writing, what’s your ratio of inspiration to perspiration?

I only perspire. One per cent of it dries into hieroglyphs. One per cent of the hieroglyphs can be saved. One per cent of those are saved.

38. Any tips on how to beat writer’s block?

Ask yourself: if your cook came to you and said, “I can’t cook today, I have cook’s block”, how would you respond? And if your work is not as important as cooking, why are you doing it?

Get thee to thy table and write badly, write through the ice floes, write even when you collide with the iceberg, keep writing even as you drown, and suddenly, you will be out into the clear water.

But you won’t come out into the clear if you don’t keep putting the bad stuff down on paper. Once you’re in the clear, ignore the bad stuff.

39. It’s in the news – so tell us what percentage of men you know are freaked out by #metoo because they don’t understand it.

One hundred per cent.

40. Would yesteryear women from Bollywood have been spared some trauma if the movement had come earlier?

Is that a question? Of course, they would.

Read Manto about walking into a producer’s room and seeing him pumping the breast of an actress.

The women from the Bollywood tomorrow will be spared some trauma if the movement continues.

41. What’s one thing you know about women?

Men can’t do without women; women can do very well without men.

42. What’s one thing you wish you didn’t know about men?

Men can’t do without women; women can do very well without men.

Photograph by Vedika Singh (courtesy Jerry Pinto)