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Award-Winning Author Jerry Pinto Opens Up On Dalit Literature, Social Stigma, And More

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By Anamika Aami:

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Jerry Pinto is an all in one package: journalist, poet, novelist, translator and social activist. He lives in Mumbai where he grew up and to which he remains deeply attached. His first novel ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ won The Hindu Literary Prize and the Crossword Book Award in 2013. He was also awarded National Film Award for Best Book on Cinema for ‘Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb’. Here is an interview conducted over e-mail:

Anamika Aami (AA): As a child were you interested in literature. When did you start writing?

Jerry Pinto (JP): I loved reading. I loved reading more than anything else. I think everyone who loves reading will begin to want to write. So that’s when I started writing.

AA: Jerry Pinto – journalist, poet, novelist, translator, social activist. Which one do you prefer and why?

JP: I don’t have much of a choice about these roles. I call myself a journalist because that is where I earned my daily bread and butter for so many years and where I learned to write under pressure. I became a teacher when I was young and didn’t know that I knew nothing and so would not be able to teach anything. That was lucky because it left me free to learn from my students. I write poetry and novels because I want to. I translate because I believe we need bridges between languages and experiences, and each translation can be a bridge. And I work on the board of MelJol because education has always been important to me and I think rural children get a raw deal and trying to make the classroom a livelier place and trying to make teachers aware of the rights of the child is an important activity. So, I don’t prefer any of these roles. They all arose because of some part of my personality and then they became some part of my personality.

AA: How much non-fiction is there in your fiction?

JP: Lots. The difficult thing is when fiction seeps into your non-fiction.

AA: Out of all the film artists why do you choose Helen for writing a biography? 

JP: Because she was marginal, the woman on the periphery. And it is in the peripheral that I am interested. The stars don’t interest me. There are lots of people who will write about them. But, when Ravi Singh, my editor and publisher, came to me and asked, “Who do you think would write a book on Helen?” my answer was instinctive. I said, “Me” and I started the next day.

AA: How do you see awards? Are they important for you as a writer?

JP: I think they’re important. That may be because I have received awards. If I’d not got any, I would have probably said they’re unimportant.

AA: How far do you agree or disagree with the socially accepted set of gender roles?

JP: I don’t know that there’s an accepted set of gender roles. If there is, who accepted them? Think about men and crying. Now masculinity in its most macho sense was represented by Amitabh Bachchan but he cried in almost every film he ever made. Think about the term ‘Mama’s boy’ which is meant to represent the worst kind of whiny effeminate boy. No Indian man would be bothered about being called a Mama’s boy. And yes, I know there are such gender stereotypes. I remember when I was translating Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue, there’s a passage where the young man Tanay is beaten by his cousin. Here it is:

On one of these days, I was taking the wooden bucket in which the ice-cream was made out of the kitchen when Sunil, Ram Kaka’s son, hit me on the legs. I almost dropped the bucket. I set it down and sat down to rub my legs. Sunil was always exercising; he had almost no other conversation. He now shouted at me, “Walk properly. Keep your legs apart and walk straight. Why do you mince along like a woman?” Then he took me into the backyard which was set with large square tiles. He made me put one foot on one tile and the other on another and walk with my legs apart. For about an hour, he sat on Baba’s scooter and tried to rewrite my gait. “Tanya, walk straight, walk slow, keep those shoulders up, push your chest out,” he roared. Aai was in the kitchen scraping the meat out of coconuts and he told her, “Kaku, make him walk like this every morning and send him out to play with the boys. He just sits around, reading.” From then on, right up to this day, I fear that I am walking funny, in other words, that I am walking like a woman. When I find myself walking at my own pace, I almost immediately slow down. And I learned what men do not do. They do not wet their dry lips by running their tongues over them. They don’t trot after their mothers into the kitchen. They don’t use face powder. They don’t sit on a motorbike behind a woman. They don’t need mirrors in the rooms where they might change their clothes. On trips, they can go behind a tree. They don’t even need an enclosed space to take a dump; they can do it in the open. They shouldn’t be afraid of other people seeing their bodies. If there’s only one bathroom, they can bathe in the open. When caned in class, they do not cry. They do not buy tamarind from the lady who sells it on the road and they certainly do not sit by her side and eat it. This is a horrible thing to do and a horrible set of almost arbitrary rules.
That’s what I think gender stereotypes are: arbitrary rules set by tradition.

AA: How do you view the recent student protest movements, for instance, the FTII or Pondicherry University protests?

JP: I am a democrat at heart and I support the rights of every segment of society to protect their interests and to make their feelings known to the government they have elected.

AA: Since you are a journalist and been in this field for a long time, what are your views on the current scenario of media?

JP: Every nation gets the media it deserves.

AA: How much influence did Mumbai have in turning Jerry Pinto to a writer?

JP: I call myself mahimkajerry. It’s my twitter handle. I think that says a lot about what I think my environment contributed to my development.

AA: How do you think one can eliminate social stigma associated with mental illness?

JP: I think we should talk about it as much as possible and we should not be ashamed of the moments when we have been subject to some mental problem, as we all are, even the most normal and rational of us. When I wrote Em and the Big Hoom, it was to me a novel. It was not about a way of beginning conversations about mental illness but if it has done that I am grateful.

AA: You recently translated a Dalit autobiography. How interested are you in Dalit literature and what is its relevance today?

JP: I translated Baluta by Daya Pawar, the first Dalit autobiography to be written in India. I believe it is as fresh and vibrant today as it was in 1978 when it was first written. This is because it is a great book and great books always remain fresh and relevant.

AA: How were you during your college days and what is your advice to aspiring writers or journalists?

JP: I was a very average college student and my advice to aspiring writers and journalists can be summed up in one word: read.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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