B for Bombay

Updated: May 30, 2019, 16:45 IST | Dalreen Ramos

We get a 12-year-old to interview Jerry Pinto on his latest book that stitches together the histories of people and places that make the city what it is today

B for Bombay

Until last week we didn't know who SM Edwardes was. We found his name - regarded as one of the greatest historians of the city - in the footnotes of Jerry Pinto's Postcards from Bombay (Scholastic India), which releases today. A quick web search reveals he died of bronchial pneumonia, a detail that we weirdly can't seem to forget, not that it is insignificant. So, we get to reading Edwardes' fascinating By-lanes of Bombay.

That's what good books do; they lead you to other good books. In his latest title for young readers, Pinto stitches together the histories of people and places that form the Mumbai fabric - in its true "Bombay" sense. You meet the Bawas and the Kolis, take a trip from Nalla Sopara to the now-shuttered Bhulabhai Desai Institute, and when you step away from reading, there's still so much more you want to know. So, we decided to get a curious mind on board — 12-year-old Vrishin Parmani from St Mary's ICSE who makes a bookmark for every book he reads, mainly fiction, we're told — to interview the author at Kitab Khana.

Watch the video below:

Edited excerpts from the interview.

A panel detailing how Lady Jamshedji Road, Mahim's infamous LJ Road, came to be. Illustration/Vishnu Nair

Vrishin: When I first got the book, I read the title and really liked the font. Why did you name it so?

Jerry: Here's the secret about books. With some books, the names just happen. I wrote a novel called Em and the Big Hoom, and during the course of [writing] the novel people were asking the name of the book and I said, 'I don't know.' I never expected that to be the title because it sounds like a children's book, but it became a new thing. This particular book is, I think, supposed to be part of a series - there'll be a Postcards from Delhi and Postcards from Calcutta. So they [the publishers] suggested the title and I wrote the book.

As to the font, it is what is called Art Deco. So, here's a potted history of architecture. You have the Baroque and then the Rococo where you put paintings and statues — everything gilded. So, then the movement begins to cut it all down — make it all clean with straight lines. Have you seen the Reserve Bank of India building?

Vrishin: Yeah.

Jerry: There's no design on it. That is 1920s modernism, and to break that a little and make it gentle, Art Deco came along the way.

Vrishin: Like the buildings around Oval Maidan!

Jerry: Ahh! You've read the book well. So, almost everything in the world of art happens in response to what went before. I think for most people, South Bombay is Bombay. The rest of it is 'suburbs'. Even Mahim, where I live, is the 'suburbs'.


Vrishin: I haven't been to all the places you wrote about. 

Jerry: But will you go now?

Vrishin: Yes!

Jerry: Then I have done my job. Have you been to the Elephanta caves?

Vrishin: No, I have been to Ellora.

Jerry: Elephanta is stunningly beautiful. It's like you go there and think, 'This is what you were doing in the 11th century!' Okay, how are temples built all over the country? You build block by block...

Vrishin: You wrote that in the comic! 

Jerry: Yes, it's all there in the book. But you know what the cool thing is about temples – it's based on human anatomy. 

Vrishin: So were you interested in history in school?

Jerry: I was a total dodo in school. I just about scraped through. Which standard are you in?

Vrishin: I'm in the 7th standard.

Jerry: In the 7th standard, I failed once in Hindi. Now I translate to Hindi and Marathi. In the 10th standard, I got 73 per cent... My school was Victoria High School in Mahim. It was a cool school! There was a graveyard in it.

Vrishin: Big graveyard?

Jerry: Big graveyard! Now, if you're sitting next to one, what are you going to be thinking?

Vrishin: That a ghost can come out any time.

Jerry: And someone is digging up a grave in the middle of the day! How are you going to pay attention to history, geography, physics or anything else... I think I spent most of my school days dreaming rather than thinking about something serious. I got rewrites on my essays, have you got any?

Vrishin: No.

Jerry: You're a very bright child, obviously.

Vrishin: At the end of every chapter, there's a comic. Do you like comics?

Jerry: I love comics, but if I read them all the time I get bored and go back to a book where I can imagine the face of the person. When you're reading Harry Potter, for instance, you have a face inside your head which sometimes matches the face of the actor you see in the films.

Vrishin: How many days did it take you to write this?

Jerry: The research took me about two or three months. The writing again took two or three, so in total, the book came about in six months. What's interesting is that the editor one day rang up and asked, 'Can you give me Paromita Vohra's number? Because we think she'll do a lovely book on Bombay.' I said okay. She said no. So, then they asked me. I was the second choice. At that point, I thought of saying no. But then I thought, 'How many hundreds of times are we the second choice? Does it matter? Do you want to do it or don't want to do it?'

Vrishin: What's the source of all this information? Did you read books or web it up?

Jerry: "Web it up" is not me. I'm 53 years old. Maybe if I was your age, I would be happier doing that. There's [books by] SM Edwardes and Gillian Tindall that I read. We have so much bad information floating around that we have to separate fake news from real. So, for example, when you see the news in mid-day, you know they have taken some trouble to ensure it is real. But if you see it on the web, the university of WhatsApp, or on Facebook, you have to ask yourself, 'Did this really happen or is someone telling me it happened?' And that will really make you the sharpest person on the block.

Vrishin: So you read your school books as well?

Jerry: No, I read lots and lots of stuff. Okay, everyone gives you books for your birthday?

Vrishin: Yes.

Jerry: Not in my time. My school didn't have a library. We had 20 to 30 books inside a cupboard in the classroom. That was our library. I read those in the first six weeks. We had circulating libraries and my daddy was very clear that we were not to buy books because he thought that we wouldn't be reading them when we grew up. So, that made me and my sister smugglers. We saved money and bought our own, smuggled them into our house and hid them under the bed. I wonder if my father actually wanted us to become book smugglers!

I feel that if you aren't reading a book, then you should give it away. One of my Hindi teachers used to say, 'Saraswati ko kaid kiya nahi jata.' You don't lock up Saraswati.

Vrishin: Even my elder sister bought books and kept it in the bookshelf because she thought, 'When my brother grows older, he will read them'. So, I still read them.

Jerry: Then that's wonderful. Once you finish reading, you must give them away. But have you noticed that people don't want books?

Vrishin: Yeah, they are all on their phones.

Jerry: Well, how sad for them. I always think that a book lights up a part of your brain. Whatever you read, even if you don't remember the story, some word has crept into your vocabulary.

Vrishin: In your book, I noticed a very funny word called 'yonks'. I didn't know the meaning and then found out it meant 'a long time'.

Jerry: Here, I'm gifting this word to you then.

Vrishin: In the last chapter, you made a list of things to do [in the city]. Have you done all of them? Because I'm excited to go and explore Bombay with my friends.

Jerry: I've done all of them. Now, the problem is, there are still some things which I haven't done. Yesterday, someone was telling me about the ship breaking yards in Bombay... I want to see that! That's the thing about the city, you are never going to finish with it. When you're through with my list, there's another one that you will make. And I hope you will share it with me one day.

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