Jerry Pinto and Shanta Gokhale

Updated: Nov 03, 2019, 07:43 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

'There is an essential goodness about Shanta' l 'I'm always wide-eyed because he is full of stories'

Jerry Pinto and Shanta Gokhale. Pic/Ashish Rane
Jerry Pinto and Shanta Gokhale. Pic/Ashish Rane

Jerry Pinto

A writer and translator, Pinto was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2016 for his novel Em and the Big Hoom.

There is a Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where he says that it's in the first few seconds of meeting someone that you recognise whether they are going to be your friend or foe. With Shanta, I liked her immediately.

I met her in this house [Gokhale's Shivaji Park residence] for the first time, and that's because I had the fortune of going to college with extraordinary people, including a young man called Girish Shahane. One day, Girish brought matki poli in his dabba and I demolished most of it. He came rushing home hungry and I tagged along. That's how I was introduced to Shanta, his mother, and the 'author' of the delicious matki poli. It was only the following day that a friend told me that I had met the legendary Shanta Gokhale.

Several years passed before I saw her again—this time, I was writing for the same daily, where she worked. I rang her up for a byte on a censorship piece that I was working on, and she instead, told me a story about Maherchi Sadi, a Marathi film about a woman who was treated terribly and which became a huge hit. Her friend Neela Bhagwat asked her maid what would happen if the maid's daughter were to be treated like that and the maid said, 'But that's just a film.' I was struck by how Shanta, through this story —that was almost like a zen koan —illuminated censorship, without establishing a didactic position.

Most of the early part of our relationship involved us running into each other at theatres. Me, rushing from mathematics tuitions, sweating profusely, to feed my mind, and Shanta, dressed in her beautiful cotton sarees, turning her intense gaze upon the work at hand. That was why I chose the title, The Engaged Observer when I edited and introduced her selected writing.

Eventually, we started to work together. She translated my novel, Em and The Big Hoom. And because I knew a little Marathi, I could participate. All my Marathi translations are vetted by her. Fundamentally, I have a translation team that I work with, which includes my executive assistant Santosh Thorat and Neela Bhagwat, who was my Marathi teacher and Shanta's friend. After they go through the book, I read out the translation to Shanta over a series of evenings, before she gives me the go-ahead. If anyone has a problem with the translation, I let them know that Shanta has vetted it, and then, they genuinely back down.

I feel there is an essential goodness about Shanta, which one can only love, but it is also something that prevents her from doing the work she should. Once she was translating encyclopaedia entries. I thought: She should be writing a memoir, she should be writing her next play, she should be writing her next novel, why is she translating this stuff? But Shanta has this genuine, moral impulse of doing her duty towards a certain intellectual sphere. However, I am glad to say that she did get that memoir done; One Foot on the Ground is a memoir told through the body. It breaks new ground on old turf.

Our conversations are always valuable to me. We talk about the mechanics of writing a novel, the specific problems of translation, the construction of a play. But it would be pretentious to say that we only discuss the higher things. We have talked about everything from the murder of a friend, the vulnerability of children—I have been teaching for very long and Shanta is a grandmother—the difficulties of getting taxies in Mumbai, and fig biscuits from Merwan's.

For me, Shanta represents civilisation. I have never seen her angered by rudeness, but she can slap it down efficiently, without losing her cool or endangering her innate dignity. I am not a calm and stable person by nature, but in the middle of a firestorm, if I can summon my inner Shanta, it helps me deal with people more civilly.

Shanta Gokhale

A bilingual writer, translator, theatre critic and cultural columnist, Gokhale won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2016 for her contribution to the performing arts

I can't recall his coming home after eating my son's matki poli, but I definitely registered that this was Jerry Pinto, someone Girish would speak of admiringly. What stuck in my mind was that he took tuitions in math. That's everybody's favourite subject, isn't it? I was in awe of him for it. It was only later, when he told me that he had given up teaching math that I felt he had come down to my level.

Back then, Jerry used to be all over the place, writing for several papers and magazines. We had many common friends, so we'd meet often. The first time he came over to see me specifically was with Naresh [Fernandes, senior editor], when I was undergoing chemotherapy. It was an empathy call and I was very touched.

We started discussing books somewhere in 2009, when I, without a publisher in sight, translated Makarand Sathe's novel [Man Who Tried To Remember]. I got in touch with Jerry, because I thought he must know the ropes of publishing—he seemed to be coming out with a book once every six months. Jerry thought it was an excellent novel, and said I should send it to Penguin. While he wasn't quite upfront about it, it transpired that he was consulting editor to them. That's how the translation got published. I realised he had a feel for Marathi.

After Makarand's book, he read my novel Tya Varshi, and that's when I discovered 'Jerry, the nag'. He nagged me every week to translate the novel into English. I wasn't too keen. But then, between 'the nag' and 'me', 'the nag' has always won. He even nagged me into writing my memoir [One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body]. There was a phase during which he was doing a lot of translations for which we met regularly. Then there was a long gap and I remember telling him, 'I am having withdrawal symptoms. Please come back.'

When Jerry talks, I'm always wide-eyed because he is full of stories, and I am a total sucker for stories. I lead a comparatively isolated life. But Jerry is out and about; like one of those machines that suck up everything in their path. He retains every detail he has picked up about people and events. He's a good mimic too, so you see people taking shape before your eyes along with their voices and expressions.

There are things that amuse me about him. I have heard him hectoring an audience of adults, some of them grey-haired women, and telling them, 'What are you, if you don't read poetry?' I have been very thankful not to be part of that audience. I know his anger comes from a genuine place. I have a lot of anger in me too, but I have filters. When he expressed it, I occasionally feel he is speaking for me.

Jerry is also blessed with an outrageously fascinating family about whom he has many stories to tell. And I admire that he remains connected to them. So many of us have dropped extended families from our lives, but not Jerry. He does his duty by them while continuing to be a prolific writer. In my life, which is otherwise largely me and my computer, he is a bubble, a ray of sunshine.

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