Interview: Jerry Pinto

‘Baluta is an act of faith’

Print edition : January 08, 2016
Interview with Jerry Pinto, the translator of “Baluta”.

JERRY PINTO, author, poet, and former journalist, on the journey of translating one of Marathi literature’s most explosive autobiographies.

Did you have to learn Marathi for this project?

For me, as for any Roman Catholic Goan boy of my class and demographic, Hindi and Marathi were languages over which my tongue stumbled and tripped. I could not get the plosives right, and when I managed a plosive, I found I had put it in the wrong place. I found the gender of nouns confusing and had no idea why a chair was female, for instance.

And then Marathi began to be hedged around by people who seemed to be talking about it as a language you ought to know to live in Mumbai. That seemed to me to be an imposition. But here it was, this ancient and beautiful language which has good claim to be among the first literary prakrits, and I was ignoring it because of the beliefs of the worst of those who spoke it.

I decided I would learn it, and I went to Neela Bhagwat, classical singer and gold medallist in Marathi at Bombay University, and I began to learn it. I don’t claim to know Marathi. I don’t claim to know English either. I only claim English as the place of dream and Marathi as the place of pilgrimage.

And so, the first book I translated was Sachin Kundalkar’s novel Cobalt Blue. And then, because something inside me drives me to take mad risks, the second was Baluta, which has poetry, dialect, and a speaking voice so clear and unmistakable that it required me to shed my writerly self in its service.

You obviously knew the story of “Baluta” well enough to want to translate it. What was it about the book that inspired you?

I believe that Baluta has something to say, something fresh and new and exhilarating. It is an amazing autobiography because it is an act of faith. Daya Pawar was not just writing a book, he was walking the bridge that he was building. Because all of us who live empowered, privileged lives know that our lives are worth recording and we say it often enough.

How many times have you heard a friend say: “My life would make a bestselling book if I just had enough time to sit down and write it”? But, what if you have spent your life being told your life amounts to nothing? What if you have always been treated as if you amount to nothing? What if you have never read a book about a person like yourself? What if you are gate-crashing the literary scene?

It is a book that took a phenomenal amount of courage to write. But more than anything, it was because it was so easy to read, so straightforward in its approach, so honest in its conception that I felt I had to translate it, I had to do it quickly because we, the Anglophone readers, had spent too many years without it.

Is it a risk to translate a Dalit autobiography from Marathi to English at a time when people’s sensibilities are blunter than they used to be?

I don’t think people’s sensibilities are blunted to art. I think they are blunted to the sledgehammers of self-righteousness and moral superiority that is often a position from which we tend to write. Daya Pawar never takes that position. He documents his life with a rare honesty, talking about his failures with women, his cowardice in confrontation, the times he let himself down. One can only be blunted to that to which one has become accustomed. One is not accustomed to books that operate at this level.

How did you find a publisher who agreed to bring out what many would say is a niche book?

I have been lucky with publishers. Quite early in my career, with my very first book, I found I had a publisher, a friend and an editor, all wrapped up in one man: Ravi Singh. I have trusted his instincts blindly, and on two occasions I have thrown away entire manuscripts, months and months of work, and started again because he told me on both occasions, in the kindest possible way, that what I had written was not acceptable. The first occasion happened at the very beginning of my career with the first manuscript I sent him; the second happened recently. But Ravi Singh is truly liberal, truly courageous and he knows how to see the book you want to do in the nebulous idea that you’re babbling to him about. So, with Baluta, there was no question that he would do it and he never hesitated.

Did you see other possibilities beyond increasing the readership of “Baluta”?

Baluta is already widely read in the Marathi world. It is a book that is so popular that it is pirated and sold on the streets. Someone asked his daughter what she felt about this and she said simply: “How does it matter? The book has to reach people and it is doing so, in bookshops and on the pavements.” I was humbled by this.

Did you know or get to meet Daya Pawar?

No, I never had that good fortune, but when I was editing Adil Jussawalla’s prose for the book that eventually became Maps for a Mortal Moon: Essays and Entertainments, I read a profile of him by Adil and it was like meeting him.

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