Jerry Pinto starts from the realm of the personal, goes on to talk about the political, our individual vulnerabilities coupled by the disturbing order of the world. And we are all in it. 'I say it happens here, it happens now and it happens with me and I must constantly interrogate my role in what I see as perpetrating injustice.'
Jerry Pinto is the author of the autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom and the non-fiction work A Book of Light. He has also written novels for children and in most of his life he has dealt with the individual psyche. While also a journalist, a poet, a teacher, all the roles converge into one while he speaks on myriad of issues.
In your works, you have dealt in depth about the human psyche and society’s perception of blind binaries as normal/abnormal. With the rise of the neo-liberal regime, how do you think it has affected the old communitarian relations amongst people and how do you think it has affected the individual psyche? Has this economic regime widened the gap among various binaries?Economic progress is a misnomer. It suggests that we are all progressing at the same rate and at the same pace. Unless every stakeholder has some investment in the new regime, things aren’t going to change very fast. So when the rich become richer and the poor become poorer—and it seems as if most societies are geared to making this happen—the result is much greater stress upon the fabric of society. Cohesion might be a natural thing for human beings but it seems as if that force only shows up now in the form of the unthinking mob. For the rest of the time, we are being pulled apart by every force we sought to fight. Our national slogan is ‘Unity in Diversity’. We seem to have forgotten that we are supposed to be different and in many and varied ways; but we are also supposed to hold together. But how can I hold together with you when your child’s school fees are one lakh rupees and my entire family is expected to live on ten thousand rupees? Each axis of division—caste, creed, gender, skin colour, racial type—has produced a series of stresses. In fact, it seems as if progress under the neo-liberal regime has put a premium on greed. So while there is a small percentage of women, Dalits, Muslims and minorities who have managed to surf this wave, it is all of us who are at fault. Writers, publishers, bankers, managers, teachers-everybody involved is guilty of perpetuating inequality simply out of greed. Gandhi put it beautifully when he said: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but never enough for even one man’s greed.” And that is something that we all have forgotten. Our tendency is to implicate the other, to say it is the larger structures of power like the government, the education system, the banking system, these are the things which have kept us poor and when the maid servant who works in our house asks us for her raise, we fight her every step of the way to keep the salary what it was. This reveals our complicity in the systems that have been created. The idea that these systems develop, neo-liberal systems develop, caste atrocities happen are all passive verbs because they suggest that they are happening somewhere else. I say it happens here, it happens now and it happens with me and I must constantly interrogate my role in what I see as perpetrating injustice.
I think all that we read, the good, the bad and the indifferent, they all stay within us. All writing is therefore hybrid. Pure writing does not exist.
In the 19th century, Dostoevsky was among the pioneers in fiction of dealing with the individual psyche. How much has he inspired you? In one of your interviews you mentioned that the frightening part was when the fiction seeped into your non-fiction. Did such works catalyse it?
I think all that we read, the good, the bad and the indifferent, they all stay within us. All writing is therefore hybrid. Pure writing does not exist. This idea of finding your voice is finding that hybrid strain which is peculiarly yours. It will always have everybody’s rhythms in it. So, when I read something that I have written, after a sufficient amount of time has passed and I have a certain distance from it, I can see Dostoevsky, Dickens, Kamala Das, David Sedaris, Adil Jussawalla, Kiran Nagarkar….I can see this whole range of people who have left some trace in me. Some influences of writers who have come before are inevitable and I do not fear them.
To be a writer is to eat words, to digest them.
With all the words that have come before us, we eat them, we digest them. They become part of our tissue and blood and bone and then they become our words again. The process is constant.
There is this lovely image in the Bible where God gives the first written document to Ezekiel. He tells him to eat it, to eat the word of God. Ezekiel forces this thing down and finds it be the sweetest honey. This is what we do with what we read, with the words that we encounter: we eat them, we digest them. They become part of our tissue and blood and bone and then they become our words again. The process never stops. Sometimes I read myself and I am reminded of an older, another Jerry Pinto and he needs to be ingested, digested and egested too.
The ‘individual’, I think, may well have been invented in the 19th century. By the time I had started writing the position of the individual had arrived almost at a solipsism where the individual is all that is needed. I think this is a terrible fallacy because the individual does not exist except in a context and certainly in literature you would never be able to invent a coherent character without suggesting something of the background. And if at all you manage to do that, the natural tendency of the reader would be to supply the background whether it’s logical or illogical, anachronistic or time specific. This is part of the magic of the writing and the reading experience where the reader becomes the co-inventor of the novel. Thus, a novel is not a novel unless someone is reading it and reinventing it inside their heads.
How do you differentiate between getting inspired and sounding like someone else? Does each of these have some elements of the other in them?Everybody writes. Your aunt will write you a letter and by that definition she has become a writer as she has indulged in the act of writing. But when you become a writer what actually changes? There are two things that change: You not only write but you rewrite and you edit. These two processes are what actually differentiate a writer from a person who writes. Our responsibility when we are editing is to look for those signs and traces of the recognisable Other. I am actually in this process looking for the points where I can say: ‘Here I am talking like So-and-So.” Now I have to make a decision. Do I want to sound like So-and-So, which would be to pay homage to that person. In that case you say: “I am inspired and I am doffing my hat to Dostoevsky”. You establish this clearly: the Dostoevskian sound or the Kafkaesque sound or the Nagarkar sound is important to your writing there, you protect it, preserve it and you flag it. If you do not want to sound like that, you cut it or you rewrite it.
That brings us to cutting. Editing is actually the art of knowing what is essential to the story. The next is: how can I do this with as few words as possible? Two reasons for this: One is Modernism which says ‘Less is more’ so we have got used to that. Though I think more is also sometimes more. Think Rushdie and those sentences that bubble forth, words inviting other words to the party, great gobbets of language. Nothing is to scale, everything nis blown out of propottion but the result is magnificent, the story as important as the language, the language dictating the story. Ulysses is also majestic because there is complete control and not one word more is there than required. Both Joyce and Rushdie are maestros. They can work with these big swooping attacks on what our world demands of us. I won’t because I am not ready for that kind of risk. So I work hard to keep things minimal.
Reason two: it is a crime to waste the reader’s time. Ours is not an age where people have time for long, discursive novels unless you want to write a long, discursive novel. Then you should do it and you can hope that people will read it. Whenever I say this, people say: Harry Potter. Yes, indeed, but Harry Potter is not a discursive novel; it is an action-packed thriller. That’s different. You need to write 300 or 400 pages if you want to write the book that will be taken to the beach resort for the summer. Those are different calculations. I don’t understand them so I’m not even going to deal with them.
We are not so vulnerable when we are hurt as when someone we love is hurt.
While Em and the Big Hoom is autobiographical, A Book of Light is a collection of experiences of people living with the nuances of what the society blatantly calls ‘madness’. Can you share your experience while editing and compiling all the experiences together?
One of the most challenging experiences during the whole process is that you are dealing with the raw material of other people’s vulnerability. We are not so vulnerable when we are hurt as when someone we love is hurt. Most people can take an insult you aim at them, but say anything about their children or parents and they will really get angry.
It is not just me but all of us who have been dealing with someone who has a mental problem and is feeling ‘I am not alone.’ I am not the only person who has been through this and that’s really reassuring.
I am much more vulnerable when someone is hurting someone I love. I am much more vulnerable to the pain of someone I love. I am completely helpless when the mind of someone I love is inflicting pain upon them.
And it took great bravery for them to write their stories for many people will tell them, ‘How could you talk about your mother like that!’ ‘How could you talk about your sister like that!’ or ‘How could you talk about your daughter like that!’ ‘Don’t you feel you were betraying them?’ They know this already. They have heard these accusations inside their heads and they have dealt with them as they are writing it. Now it was my duty to tell them: “Let’s work on this piece. You wrote it as someone who went through this but I have to offer it to someone who is a reader and I must keep that reader in mind.” So, in doing that, I would often feel whether I am treading on their vulnerabilities and that was the most challenging thing but I must say they all were extremely good about it. We worked together almost seamlessly and they worked almost like professional writers, though only two or three of them had written professionally and the rest were all writing for the first time, delving into spaces which were dark and problematic. They are really brave and empathetic human beings because I think they knew the idea behind the book: of being able to say to someone else, someone you don’t know but who is living through something similar: you’re not alone, I’ve been there.
See, what is the Court of Law except a contestation of memories? Someone comes into the court and says ‘That was the police officer who raped me on such and such a day.’ Then someone else says, ‘I remember this person could not have raped you because he was in such and such place on such and such day.’
This might sound off topic, and if you don’t mind me saying this, you are collecting memories in your books, ones which are deeply personal. How do you think memories contest history or the significance of this collision if we recall the lines of Agha Shahid Ali: ‘My memory keeps getting in the way of your history’? More so in the context of Kashmir and Bastar, the two most conflicted zones of the country?See, what is the Court of Law but a contestation of memories? Someone comes into the court and says ‘That was the police officer who raped me on such and such a day.’ Then someone else says, ‘I remember this person could not have raped you because he was in such and such place on that same day.’
Everything in our world is about memory. Memory makes us human. But it also makes us terribly prone to suffering again and again from things are temporally ‘in the past’. (Psychically, psychologically, there may be no past; there may only be a recurring cycle of present-s) Therefore, amnesia then becomes an alternative. It becomes a crude form of therapy: to forget, to abandon those memories. Constantly the victims and survivors of violence are being told ‘why do you think about those things!’, ‘why can’t you let them go!’, ‘why do you have to go back all the time?’ And why do we go back? The memory is not pleasant and it is dragging you back into its darkness. Sometimes you want to be dragged back because you think it might be therapeutic. So, in all cases history becomes a generalised, larger narrative about what the historian thinks will construct a coherent view of the universe. We always need to remember history, like writing, is done by a person who has biases, who has an ideology, an –ism that he is possibly pushing or perpetrating. He will choose those facts, those memories that fit into that ideology and so all histories are biased. All memories are flawed. But this is what we have to work with to construct a human story….with flawed narratives. And with flawed histories we will build a story that maybe bigger than the flaws. It may be only the sum of the flaws as well. But it all depends on how we use that history-whether we use it with empathy or as a tool against other people.
Extreme left aur extreme right chhodo, just the left and the right. Or the middle ground. No one has room for women. It is shocking to see how little land is owned by women, how little money is owned by women, how little space is given to women’s issues in papers, how they are segregated into a ‘Woman’s extra’, a ‘Woman’s Page’. Do we ever have a Man’s page?
Coming to the session which you were a part of, you said ‘Feminism has been an orphan in India.’ How has the Extreme Left or the Extreme Right……..
Extreme left aur extreme right chhodo, just the left and the right. Or the middle ground. No one has room for women. It is shocking to see how little land is owned by women, how little money is owned by women, how little space is given to women’s issues in papers, how they are segregated into a ‘Woman’s extra’, a ‘Woman’s Page’. Do we ever have a Man’s page? One of the reasons this has happened is because feminism has been seen as a terrible Western import. An import that came out of America because of which Indian women who are otherwise so lovely, charming, beautiful and sweet will now become western harridans and will challenge the status quo. This is the central fear. But I think it is changing now and dramatically so, after Nirbhaya.
All that feminism asks for is that men and women should be treated equally, should be paid equally, should have equal inheritance rights and should be equal before the law. Isn’t that just basic humanity that you would like to grant somebody?
I used to meet young women who said repeatedly they are not feminists. They did not want to claim feminism because they felt it was a more extreme position than being a Communist or a right-winger bhakt. These were women who were studying in professional colleges and had genuine career ambitions. They wanted to be allowed to perform those career ambitions. But they also wanted to be good daughters, they wanted to marry and have families. Somewhere somehow there is a misinformation that feminism requires you to be a man-hater, it requires you to reject society. All that feminism asks for is that men and women should be treated equally, should be paid equally, should have equal inheritance rights and should be equal before the law. Isn’t that just basic humanity that you would like to grant somebody? Instead it is being converted into a narrative where women are expected to be radical and reject all societal forms. But after Nirbhaya, many women are claiming the position of feminism. I don’t know if there is any movement currently happening and if there is, are they taking all kinds of women with them? Are they taking Muslim women, Dalit women, lesbians? Are they fighting side by side with the LGBT movement? These are questions that needs to be answered which we are all terrified to answer because we really want the world to be constructed in our likeness. We like everybody to be clones of who we are and that would make us happy. Diversity is easy to preach but hard to do.
The LGBT movement is largely an English speaking movement. How do you talk to a Bastar tribal boy who is gay?
But, does the identity based movements make way for unification of all such fronts?Not in my experience but we can keep hoping, can’t we? The LGBT movement, for instance, seems to be largely an English-speaking movement. How do you talk to a Bastar tribal boy who is gay? Is there room for him in the movement? Will the Tibetans make common cause with the people displaced by the Narmada Valley Project? Do they see the commonalities? Dr Ambedkar would have nothing to do with the Communists because the Communist leadership was almost all Brahmin.
You know, being inclusive has a very high emotional cost. True inclusivity means you will keep the dialogue going with the worst of your enemies. You have to keep that dialogue going. What makes us human is talking and talking to everybody and not just talking to people who validate and agree with us. And this unfortunately is the human tendency to find those circles and burrow into them and be comfortable there.
Antharjanam is a wonderful account written by Lalita Antharjanam who was the last of the Antharjanams. They were Nambudiri women. They spent their entire lives inside houses, that’s why the name Antharjanam. They lived inside their fathers’ houses and when they got married they lived inside their husbands’ houses and then they died and their bodies were burnt.
In the session, Supriya Chaudhuri rejected the claim often made by people that a middle class woman academician can feel and understand the pain of a Dalit woman. While some of the others were of different view, how do you perceive it?
You should ask Supriya Chaudhuri for an answer. But let us look at something like the book Antharjanam, a wonderful autobiographical account written by Lalita Antharjanam who was the last of the Antharjanams. They were Namboodiri women. They spent their entire lives inside their houses, that’s why the name Antharjanam. They lived inside their fathers’ houses and when they got married they lived inside their husbands’ houses and then they died and their bodies were burnt. Often they were starving because the Namboodiri men were spending all their money outside and were not supporting their families.
In the realm of imagination, I accept no rules. I believe there should not be rules.
These were hungry, young girls who till the age of 8 only wore a banana spread across their genitals. They were being bathed all the time because there was a constant worry of ritual purity. Can any Dalit woman, labouring in the fields, working in coal mines, working outside understand the sorrow of the Brahmin Antharjanam? So, what we need to be very careful of is to not create hierarchies of sorrow. You have to learn empathy and it has to be multi-directional and should be offered as a genuine offering of exchange. Empathy does not mean sympathy, it does not mean pity or saying, ‘I am here to hug you.’ It means an offering of fellow humanity where you say ‘You have suffered. I have suffered. Let’s talk. Let us make space for each other’s narratives, in our hearts.’ So, complete understanding of the other is probably impossible. You know your mum probably understands you better than anybody else but she does not understand you fully. She has no idea what you are like when you are with your male friends, what you are like when you are sexually aroused. Therefore, this idea of complete understanding is itself chimerical and therefore all we can do is offer the best possible, non-judgemental, inclusive, polyvalent fellowship.
How did a South-African lesbian woman put herself in the place of a Persian boy and talk about a man with whom he is falling in love. It is only about craft.
At this point, I would like to know your opinion on the subjectivity of a writer. There have been instances where a man has written in a female voice. How do you look at it? Is it at all possible to portray another distinct gender without stepping in their shoes?The proof is in the pudding. I don’t know if it is at all possible. But for instance, Mary Renault. She wrote a series of books about Alexander where she places herself in the position of a gay Persian eunuch in love with Alexander. The Persian Boy, Fire from Heaven and Funeral Games are among the finest recreations of the Alexandrian time that I have ever read. How did a British lesbian woman, who spent half her life in South Africa, put herself in the place of a Persian boy and talk about a man with whom he is falling in love? That is craft. It is not about who you are and what body you have but only about how well or badly you do it. Other than that in the realm of imagination, I accept no rules. I believe there should not be rules. There should only be the reader who then says ‘She tried to be a man and she failed.’ That’s all there is. Can we conceive of the mind as non-gendered, non-sexual? Can we liberate ourselves to say ‘I am reading this book and its wonderful .It sounds like a woman talking. Oh, look. It’s a man who wrote this book. But does that matter?’ I understand that very often these things will fail but if we do not experiment and we do not fail, things do not move forward. Literature does not move forward. Literature moves as much with its successes as with its failures.
If there is any response that I have, I will only say that the Liberal voice and the Left wing voice got complacent and were not speaking to the larger public. They were speaking to the converted and they were speaking with the self-assurance of moral superiority.
Last question, as this bothers every awakened individual today, what is your comment on this exponential rise of the ultra-right wing Hindutva forces in India alongside corporate fascism?
If there is any response that I have, I will only say that the Liberal voice and the Left wing voice got complacent and were not speaking to the larger public. They were speaking to the converted and they were speaking with the self-assurance of moral superiority. They felt morally superior to the Right Wing and that they would never get validated. The language became more self-involved, it became inaccessible, academic, Brahmanical and I think we all are equally responsible for what happened. The price of having a just and equitable society is that we keep fighting for egalitarianism and we keep fighting in a much more potent ways. Yeah?
Image via www.alchetron.com