Trust Jerry Pinto to keep a room filled with impatient, cellphone-loving Mumbaiites engaged for over an hour.
He, along with old friend and fellow author-journalist Naresh Fernandes were discussing his long-standing love affair inside the packed CK Nayudu Hall at the Cricket Club of India, Churchgate.
It was about a book. A book, which he admitted, took over 20 years to complete. The end result is a poignant, sensitive, funny, sepia-tinted story about four members of the Mendes family, residents of Mahim whose lives and eccentricities have been cemented for posterity, thanks to Pinto’s remarkable craft.
Em, the protagonist. The Big Hoom, the background score. Two people locked in a relationship that defies logic. Witnessed, watched, and soaked in by the son and daughter. Beyond this, Jerry won’t tell. We won’t either. Instead, he takes us on a walk down rewind road.
What was going through your mind as you approached the end of writing Em and the big Hoom?
One of the good things about how the brain is wired is that we can forget pain. I love writing, I love the doing of it but it is also a business that is lonely, and there are no markers and signposts. I would wish often to be an accountant; if your books balance, your job is done. I would wish to be a stockbroker; if you’ve made a lot of money, you know that you’ve come out ahead. (Or so I think, perhaps stockbrokers and accountants also look for beauty and balance and transcendence in their work. It is difficult to imagine but perhaps they do.) But as a writer, you can only believe in what you are doing. Faith keeps you going and it is sometimes a very thin ray of light in the encircling gloom.
Did Jerry Pinto and the protagonist in the book meet at some point?
I believe that there is something of me in everything I write. Every writerly journey begins when you throw open a window and look into yourself. Which window is your decision as a writer. What you see from that window, likewise. What you choose from the welter of you, you-ishness, you-ment, you-ry, ditto. The glorious thing about fiction is that you can mix memory and desire and the only thing you have to worry about is whether it works or not.
What has changed the most in our city since the time you began writing this book?
I began writing this book 20 years ago, maybe more than that. I wrote 27 drafts of it and sometimes I think there have been 27 drafts of the city outside the balcony. This is the way it must be. A city that remains unchanged over 20 years must be in the state that Pompeii is: petrified, dead, everything frozen in time. Much of the change has, as anyone knows, been for the worse. We live and love on a tinderbox; at any time, some tectonic plate will shift and we will all be crushed. You would not wish that on an enemy but for a writer, it is a source of unending inspiration, of magnificent material.
What do you think would’ve been Em’s first comments if she read this book?
She would have said, “Where are the car chases? Put in a luscious blonde, some stolen diamonds and a body in the library. And have a court scene at the end.” No, I don’t know. For me, Em is a fascinating character because she isn’t predictable.
The language and humour in this book is fluid and evokes a nostalgic charm. Were you happy with the way it read?
Each draft would leave me terrified that I was channeling some writer, that I was pretending to be someone, that I was striving for some effect that was beyond the scope of my powers. I remember reading the fifth draft and thinking, “If I should meet the guy who wrote this book, I should advise him not to give up his day job.” Each time it seemed as if the book was all wrong but when I did give up my day job, when I did decide that I would spend the next so many years writing my novel, putting it first, concentrating on it and devil take the need to earn money and to travel and to buy books, I thought, “Right, this is it. If it doesn’t work this time, you should do something else.” (What else? Teaching kids mathematics. Starting a rural libraries programme. Whatever.)
And then, when it was over, three years and 7,00,000 words later, I found it didn’t work. But what did work were the sections that dealt with the four love-battered Mendeses. As for the humour, I believe that if you can laugh a little, cry a little, love a little, acknowledge a few flaws and work so that you can afford meals, books and medical insurance, you’re okay, you’re in good mental health, your world isn’t far from being as good as it gets. But laughter is important, very important.
Em and the Big Hoom lived in a different time. How different would they have been in today’s day and age?
I don’t know how different they could be. I believe the pharmacopoeia has advanced greatly and so perhaps a modern-day Em would have more choices. But India produces 22,000 doctors a year as opposed to 2,00,000 engineers from Maharashtra alone. How many of those 22,000 doctors will become psychiatrists? How many will work in small towns? How will you deal with a case of paranoid schizophrenia in a village that has no primary health care centre and where you might lose a baby from diarrhea every other month? What will happen to the man who loves the paranoid schizophrenic in that village? How will he cope with the decisions he must make?
Whatever else changes one thing will not: we will never be immune from the people we love. Their hurts will always make us ache more than our own. If that ceases to happen, we will lose our right to call ourselves human.
Em and the big Hoom, Jerry Pinto, Aleph Book Company, Rs 495. Available at leading bookstores
Finally, your first stories for a newspaper were published in MiDDay; what was it like to see your byline in print? How different (if it all) is the feeling from now, after you’ve completed this book?
When my first piece appeared, I carried the paper around and kept taking surreptitious looks at it, confirming that my name was still there, that I now belonged to the tribe of writers and journalists and thinkers and wordsmiths and mindbenders and thoughtformers and nountinkers and adverbers and hacks and scribes and journalists and proto-historians. It was magic and whenever I crib about what I am paid, or what scutwork one must do to make a living, I remind myself that I’m paid to do what I love doing and it doesn’t get better than that.
MiDDay has a special place in my heart. My first pieces came out on its back pages. I still have a hand-written note from Hutokshi Doctor, who was then Features Editor, asking my agent if I would like to write some stories.
Yes, agent. I was at the time making a living on teaching mathematics privately. And my friend, Rashmi Palkhivala would keep saying I should write for the papers, I should write funnies. I said, only half-joking, that my ego would not take rejection. So she said, “You write them, I’ll type them and take them to the editors. You won’t have to know whether they reject you or not.” In the next week, fourteen pieces came pouring out of me. She typed them up and took them to MiDDay. They accepted twelve. I was over the moon but within twenty seconds, I was asking: “Which were the two they didn’t like? And why didn’t they like them?” The Buddha was right, there is no end to desire.