Jerry Pinto is no stranger in the literary circle. He’s had his time with poetry and other works of fiction but Em and the Big Hoom comes to readers like a wake-up call. It’s frank, it’s stark, it’s in your face. And it’s devastatingly beautiful.
In an exclusive interview, Jerry Pinto speaks to Millennium Post about his debut novel. Here are excerpts:
Em and the Big Hoom seems to be coming from a very personal space. Could you tell us a little about that space?
In a certain way, all writing comes from a personal space. In another way, some of the writing one does, which reflects the processes and priorities of other peole, is more impersonal. For me Em and the Big Hoom was the first novel I ever started writing. It is the book I wanted to write, because I felt it was a story I wanted to tell, because it was what I knew, because I wanted to see what would happen if I set it all down.
How much of the author is there in the narrator? Reflections or a narrative that has very little to do with perhaps what really happened?
I am the narrator, in one real way. I am telling the story. I am even narrating the narrator. The decision to make it a first person account was really a literary one because a family story often seems like a single unitary history, as if there is only one story in there. And actually there are as many stories as there are people and as many stories as there are listeners. So the ‘I’ of the book is an attempt to say, ‘Do you know anything about your family? And how do you know what you know?’
Was there an inspiration from any other literary work – even remotely?
Every book you read smears you, every book you read leaves you with a trace in your head. Sometimes it’s a well-turned phrase, sometimes it’s a decision: when I do my book, I’m not going to do that. If I said that there was a book experience I had that did not influence me in some way, I would be telling a lie.
In connection to the above question madness has been dealt with extensively in Western literature – alternately – how does India perceive ‘madness’ in your opinion?
I think we have a voyeuristic attitude to madness. We create clear compartments: sane and mad. In the compartment marked sane is oneself and one’s family whether this is medically defensible or not. And this drives all questions of mental ill health underground. We don’t want to talk about it because it will fracture the image of the family’s perfection which we are working so hard at maintaining. And yet this work, this constant manicuring of perfection, can produce its own fractures.
I did not intend Em and the Big Hoom to be a catalyst for conversations around the subject of mental ill health but every day I get a call, a message, an email, about someone who has been touched by the story simply because their lives were in some way affected. It isn’t six degrees of separation; it’s a single degree of separation between what we define as ‘norma’l and what we define as ‘insane’.
Lastly, what plans for the next novel?
There’s a lovely Arvind Krishna Mehrotra poem where he asks where the next one will come from. I think that’s the mystery of it: you don’t know it’s happening until it is happening. Or until it has happened. In between, there will be mistakes, mysteries and much manoeuvring.