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Biography as History - Jerry Pinto


Updated: Nov 28, 2020

This talk was presented on August 16, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India, Calcutta.

I always think of a translator as someone who is rowing a boat of salt across the river. Your boat is dissolving even as you take it across the river, but you still try, because on the other side the need for salt is acute. What is that need? It differs from book to book but in India, the translator is working at joining up the linguistic islands of the nation. She—and it is generally a woman—is building bridges across which meaning can flow. Perhaps I should make the second analogy a little clearer. The islands are low-lying and the sea between them recedes often to allow some traffic. Thus in any major city, it is possible to negotiate several languages at once. I get up in the morning and speak English to myself, call an old aunt and speak in a mixture of Konkani, Portuguese and English, talk to the cab driver in Hindi and to an author I am translating in Marathi; a Parsi friend calls up and in ludic mode, I ask him, ‘Kemchho, majjaamaa?’ and I know that each time I step out of English I am risking something, speaking to a senior woman in the tone that is meant for a junior, changing the gender of some inanimate object. I transgress in many languages, English included, but my transgressions are forgiven because most of my linguistic transactions are agenda-based. People want to know what I mean so they will work at understanding my meaning. I will too when someone says something to me in a language I know a little better than he. This is how language works when it is not politicized. For the story of language in India is the story of a great exchange, a grand migration, unabashed borrowings and reusings on one side; and of equally strenuous attempts at purification and cleansing on the other.

My first translation was a book called Cobalt Blue (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) written by Sachin Kundalkar, a Brahmin author. I mention this because there is some cause to believe that being Brahmin gives you a position of some legitimacy, some centrality. But if you are a gay Brahmin boy in Pune, you are going to be an outsider in your community and many others. Thus we must beware the seductions of easy categorization when dealing with how biography may impact a person’s history. Kundalkar wrote this book when he was young; I have heard it said that he was in his twenties. The narrative is divided into two parts: Tanay tells the story of his love affair with their new Bohemian boarder; and in the second half Anuja, Tanay’s sister, tells her story of her encounter with the same man. These simultaneous affairs are hermetically sealed off from each other by the hypocrisy of the middle-class Maharashtrian family. (This can be read as any middle-class Indian family but the narrative specificities are Maharashtrian, more specifically Punekari, though the city around is an amalgam of Pune and Mumbai.) The young boy is allowed to go upstairs and stay all night in the man’s room and the girl, the sister, is not. So she meets him outside. Sincebrother and sister never talk to each other about their sexuality, since there is a huge silence around matters of the heart, neither Tanay nor Anuja confide in the other and this silence remains even at the end of the book.

My friend Naresh Fernandes and I put together an anthology called Bombay, Meri Jaan; Writings on Mumbai (Penguin India, 2003). We wanted it to be as representative as possible. We had some Narayan Surve in an essay on the mills and some Namdeo Dhasal as well. But then in a wonderful anthology called Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature (Orient Longman, 1992) edited by Arjun Dangle, I found an essay called ‘Son, eat your fill’ by Daya Pawar, taken from his celebrated autobiography, Baluta (Granthali, 1978), certainly the first Marathi dalit autobiography ever written. It is a warm and wonderful portrait of his grandmother, her memories of the city, of the horse-drawn trams, of her working at a vet’s clinic and of her sitting by his side as he ate, encouraging him to eat his fill.

Some years later, I was looking through Bombay Meri Jaan and realized that I had not read Baluta, which is a classic. I knew that a French translation had come out, because Adil Jussawalla mentions it in his essay on Daya Pawar (to be found in Maps for a Mortal Moon; Essays and Entertainments, edited by one Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger, 2017). I was sure there would be an English translation as well and since reading in English is easier, I thought I would get hold of it and read it. So I asked Shanta Gokhale whether it had been translated. She said it hadn’t and without even thinking of the consequences, without having read the book, I asked her if she thought I might make a good translator for it. Bless Shanta’s heart, she said ‘Yes’ and I was launched as a translator.

I think there may be a lesson in there for all of us who call ourselves teachers. Often when a student comes and asks ‘Do you think I can I do this?’ we tend to say ‘You?’ in a tone of some disbelief because we tend to remember every mistake s/he has made, every disappointment to which we have been subjected. We are also perhaps trying to keep them safe from failure. My lesson as a teacher was that the more you trust a student, the more a student can trust herself.

This was a big book, because the starting of the book is this incredible performance where Daya Pawar splits himself into two and these two have a conversation. One half of him encourages the other half to write, the other demurs, wondering who might want to read his book, asking whether he might seem like a walking freak show of horrors. I was wondering why he was doing this and then I suddenly realized: what if you have never seen yourself in a book, what if there is no representation of your kind? What if you have been told repeatedly that your story has no significance? Name me 10 Dalits you mention in class. Ambedkar? Phule? Periyar? Jogen Mondal? Four, five, eight, maybe?—but it ends there. There are two hundred million people out there and we represent them in our educational system with four or five people! How do you think that feels? How do you think Daya Pawar felt when he finished his B.A without hearing a word about Chokhamela, one of the greatest of Marathi saints. He is canonical in Marathi saint literature but he is never talked about in Marathi text books. Therefore in Baluta’s opening chapter, Pawar must encourage himself because there’s no one else to encourage him. There’s no lineage, there’s no history, there are no models and no references but within twenty pages he’s hit stride. His story has taken shape and he abandons those two Daya Pawars. There’s just one Daya Pawar who is talking now and he talks through the book. He talks and he talks and he’s brilliant, he has poetry in the middle and suddenly made me realize that I have to translate poetry now. It was magnificent to do, it was heart wrenching, it was heart breaking but it was wonderful, I enjoyed Baluta tremendously.

I am a great fan of the Bombay Dock explosion. The Bombay Dock explosion interests me because it was such a weird thing to happen. In 1944 a ship comes into Bombay harbour carrying cotton, explosives and gold. Now the thing with cotton is you have to keep wetting it otherwise the internal heat of cotton is so much that it catches fire spontaneously. The man who was spraying the cotton with water took a day off, the cotton caught fire and the explosives were set off and 4000 tons of ship flew into the air and fell over another ship and gold bricks flew through the air and hit a Parsi balcony. This is all history. One thing about history is it is always unbelievable and always totally weird because it is composed of human beings. The Parsi gets up in the morning and takes the gold bricks and gives them to the police. Now, in Baluta, when this explosion happens, all of Bombay is running away from the docks because the docks are on fire, all the mahars—Daya Pawar’s people—are running to the docks because where there will be damage there will be rubble, and where there is rubble there will be something to salvage and sell.

I read Mee Mithaachi Baahuli (Rajhans Prakashan, 2014) by Vandana Mishra, who wrote this book at the other end of the age spectrum from Sachin Kundalkar. She wrote her autobiography when she was eighty-five. Again, she is Brahmin; again, her status is in question. She was two years old when her father died of pneumonia, her mother becomes head of the family and trains as a mid-wife because it is a short course and will give her a way to earn her living. Sushila Lotlikar is twelve when someone throws acid on her mother and she is laid up in bed. Sushila must go to work and she becomes an actress. She is a Maharashtrian girl, who speaks Konkani at home, but her first job is on the Gujarati stage. She acts on the Gujarati stage for years, and she becomes a bit of a star but she is getting only second leads. So she decides to break out and become a Marwari theatre star. Then at the height of her career her mother tells her that she should get married—so she gets married at 21 and retires from the stage, settles down and has three children. She also has a story about the Bombay Dock Explosion. She’s on stage and the audience hears the explosion. They finish their show and they rush home but the next day, as the city burns and people are fighting the fires, she is back on stage again. Same event, two prisms.

This is what biography can teach history. Herakleitos taught us that you can never cross the same river twice. But you can have several river crossings—a metaphor which carries much weight in India—in fact, as many river crossings as there are observers.

Take the case of Mala Uddhvasta Vhaaychay (1994) by Mallika Amar Sheikh, which I translated into English as I Want to Destroy Myself (Speaking Tiger, 2016). Mallika Amar Sheikh had a ringside view of history. Her father was the noted revolutionary poet Amar Sheikh who died young. Her husband was the noted revolutionary poet Namdeo Dhasal who also founded the Dalit Panthers, a movement that based itself on the Black Panthers movement of America. Her story is told with great honesty and with a complete lack of guile. She speaks of the tragedy of losing her father, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and the breakdown of her marriage. For many readers, this was a new perspective of events. Namdeo Dhasal was the poet who had blown Marathi sensibility out of the water; now he was also the man who had mistreated his wife.

What I want to say about translation is—you must want to do it. The only reason to translate is you must want to do it. And for me doing Baluta, Mallika Amar Sheikh and Vandana Mishra and Cobalt Blue—and Eknath Awad, a Mang activist whose explosive autobiography will come out next year—all these are about rowing that boat made of salt across the river.

Or to use another metaphor, think of your knowledge of history as a quilt. As a history teacher, you might think of your quilt as particularly fine. But when your quilt is examined from a certain perspective, you might find it a little threadbare. How does your quilt stand up to the question of how many women whose lives matter? How does your quilt stand up to the question of how many Dalit lives get mentioned? How does your quilt stand up to the question of where the aboriginal, the tribal, the farmer, fits in? Is your quilt rich with kings and princes and emperors and presidents and prime ministers and foreign ministers? How would your quilt stand up if the North-Eastern woman went looking for the names of her people in it? Do the names of Henry Kissinger and Bismarck mean more than the names of Birsa Munda and Imliakum Ao? This is where translation has so much work to do that sometimes I feel an almost personal sense of despair at how little good translation we seem to be doing.

To me, history is a story. Etymologically, it is histoire, the story. A folk rendering of it might be his-story, the story of the upper-class privileged male. This story has no place for fiction, we are told. I think that’s not particularly useful a distinction because fiction often offers the reader clues to the thoughts and feelings and worldviews of its characters. Yes, these tend to be middle-class people because middle-class people also write fiction but we should know by now that we are all required to look more carefully at identity politics.

In fiction, we are looking at ways in which people looked at other people. So Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar is an answer to many RSS claims that homosexuality is a Western phenomenon, that it didn’t exist in India. Is this of any relevance to you as teachers? Do you mention a gay figure out of history in class and say that he was gay? There might be a student in your class who is wondering: Am I the only one who feels this way?

There is a horrible silence around many things, around being born in the wrong body, around being gay, around being Dalit, around being Muslim. All of these things are silences that as teachers you can break. You can break silence and you can break the silence ex-cathedra. Your students believe you, they trust you, they may hate you also but they still believe and trust you. And they hate themselves because they trust and believe in you and you often let them down. That’s what our relationship with students is: a complex mixture. We may have served one section of the class only to ignore another. We may privilege the ones who are ‘bright’ by which we mean the brightness that allows them to deal well with abstract ideas, and we may in the process let down the others. But can we try to be inclusive? Can we talk about these problems?

Allow me a small digression. My novel is called Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Books, 2012). It tells the story of the Mendes family whose mother has bipolar disorder. It is based on the fact that my mother had bipolar disease. But I couldn’t write it as nonfiction. I wrote it as a novel because I needed some distance when I was writing. After I finished, I would do these readings where people would narrate their own experiences. When raw emotion is let loose in a room, you have to be trained to control it. I was telling my publisher this and he said get them to write. And this made me think maybe this is one way to try and make something out of it and take the pain somewhere. I started doing that and eventually one of the people actually wrote a piece and sent it to me. It was such a good piece that I began actively to look for other people.

Most of the people who wrote for the book called, Book of Light, were carers, people who lived with the person with the affliction. The last one was Nirupama Dutt who wrote about her daughter who is a special person and has just become a mother herself. Dutt told me of a young man who wanted to write about his father Swadesh Deepak, a playwright. I had seen his play, Court Martial, set in the Indian Army. Apparently, after he wrote Court Martial, Swadesh Deepak had, what is called a nervous breakdown. He tried to kill himself, he slashed his wrists, he set himself on fire, and the result was that he was burnt so severely, they could not decide that if he should be put into burns unit or the psychiatric unit of AIIMS, Chandigarh. After seven years of this, he began to recover. When he recovered, his friends said, write, write about this. He wrote a book called, Maine Mandu Nahi Dekha (I have not seen Mandu).

Now, if you have grown up with a mother who has a mental problem, you become addicted to reading about mental health; you read it all the time. You read anything you can lay your hands on. You just want to understand. You want to be able to translate what is happening. You want magic, you want a talisman, you want books to become some kind of a guide and guardian in the world. And I missed this book!? So I start reading it, and seriously, I had read nothing like it. Not just because we do not have many narratives about mental health in India but also because it was a formally stunning book. Deepak calls it a khandit collage—a fractured collage. It begins with a long description of dinner at the house of Nirmal Verma and Gagan Gill.

I had started reading this for mental health and I had become a fly on the wall in Nirmal Verma’s house. And then of course it begins to darken. As you are reading it, you can see the man who is writing it is not well. Swadesh Deepak is walking on thin ice till the end of the book and two years after the book came out, he got up in the morning, walked out of his house and he vanished forever. We don’t know where he is.

It was his son Sukant Deepak who wanted to write a piece for me for the Book of Light. When it was done, I asked him why he didn’t translate his father’s book. He said that it was too personal. And before I could do anything, I was saying, then may I translate it?

That will be out soon. This sounds like a commercial break but I am only trying to point out the hundreds of constituencies that we need to address to make that quilt a rich and inclusive one. Q&A

Audience member. You mentioned how teachers have to break the silence. I am a teacher and I think that sometimes silence is very good for a society because you need to understand the silence and try to break it. This generation is in a hurry to discover history very fast. History will move at its own pace and till it reaches to a place where it is to be told, till that time silence is golden. And it is also important that you educate, your students about why silence is there, rather than simply going into a conflict.

Jerry. I completely agree with you when you say that silence was golden. In some terrible way, teachers are responsible for anything that happens in a class. It is a terrible responsibility actually. So, I would say, when I walk into a classroom I start by telling my post graduate students—I tell my students; this is going to be no holds barred. I say—because a large majority of them are women in a media class—We will obviously be talking about sexuality. If you feel that at any point you are uncomfortable, you need to be able to openly say, ‘I don’t want you to be talking about that’. Because we talk about feminine genital mutilation for instance. We talk about many issues that come up in the papers and there are terrible things that happen in the world and they must find their way into the media. Now, over the last 25 years, I have never had one size fits all theory for my class. My class is a living, breathing entity in front of me and I must be completely responsive to that entity in that moment—if I am to make that connection whether with silence or with speech. Both need to be respected because we often deny students agency. And students often resent the lack of agency but equally, they are frightened of agency. For the last fifteen years of education, they have given themselves over to teachers and texts. They have not been asked to think, or they have been rewarded if they thought in a certain way. It is very rare to find a teacher who can look at a student making a contrary argument and respect that student and respect her right to make it. So in my understanding of it, most students see themselves as pots. And you are supposed to pour into the pot that which is useful for the exam and that which will come in handy for a career. So often, in the first month of my class someone will say, I don’t know what notes to take in your class. So, I say, yeah, do you need notes? And they say, how will I answer exams. I say, we won’t have an exam of the kind you can prepare for. That should liberate them, you would think; it doesn’t. It terrifies them.

So what quality you attribute to speech and what quality you attribute to silence is really dependent on the context. If a woman is raped, and she says nothing about it, is her silence really golden? If we witness some atrocity and are silent, is it golden? Speech can often be powerful, speech can be disruptive. I think you are teachers with jigyasa, you have chosen to come here. You have chosen to acknowledge that your teaching methods can be improved by something like this. I am going to trust your fundamental teacherliness, I am going to say you are here understanding that being a teacher requires being a student as well and you have come here as an acknowledgment of that. When you are breaking the silence or maintaining the silence perhaps we can all be more responsive to how our students will take what we are saying.

But there are many things that must be said. Silence can fester just as much as speech can explode.

Audience member. When you are a teacher in the Indian system where there is a fixed syllabus, especially for the senior classes, which is often entrenched with Brahmanism and other oppressive ideas, how does one practice inclusion? Jerry: It’s very simple: give them notes. I would go in and say ‘there are 24 likely questions in the exam, here are the 24 likely answers that will give you more than 60%, take them and go home and study them. Write these answers out, copy them out, ten times before the exam. Copy them again and again and again, then they will be in your system, you see the question and you start to write without thinking. You write your six pages; you’ll get your 12 on 20. You’ll get your first class.’ This calms most students down. Now you get them in class and make them start talking. Talking, discussing, debating, learning how to be civil to opposing points of view, this is what education should be about.

Second, the most effective way of teaching is to shut up! Most teachers do too much talking in class; they do not let students discover things themselves. So, presentations are very useful way of doing things. I tell my students every year to sing a lavani on Freud. They have to research Freud and then they have to come in front of me and they have to dance and I always tell the intelligent ones, the ones that are always stiff in the corner to move. Because that’s also language. Body is language. Communication. So the other group will be filming it, because it’s a media course, then that group will come up and do a qawwali on Marx. And the lavani group will be shooting them, and the third will go up and do a ‘bhavai’ someone like Sister Nivedita.

Now three things happen. They are forced into performance and Indian students love performing. They will all dress up, wearing Qawwali caps and so on and actually have a good time. Can we make the classroom a place where a student talks more than the teacher and it becomes a discovery. When you are teaching, say the history of the Indian independence movement. You ask your students to count the number of women in the textbook. Make a list of the men and a list of the women. That was half the sky. Where is half the sky today? Take the newspaper. Divide it into articles about men and articles about women. Look into the articles about women. Cookery, flower arrangements, how to make nice sandwiches. If the students discover this for themselves by making that list, it is much more effective than telling them ‘women have been silenced, women’s voices are not to be representative’. Let them discover it. If we are not using the hive mind of the student, we are not teaching. Stuti Pachisia: I wanted to do a module on Dalit Literature for Children. I haven’t been able to write an introduction, given that I myself am a Savarna woman.

Jerry. Go and interview Dalits about their childhood and just do narrative pieces. One of the greatest tools we have is self-implication. Self-implication requires me to stand up and say Roman Catholic male at least three times when I am dealing with Dalit writing. I am implicating myself before you say it to me. Now you say Savarna woman. That is all is required. Then, don’t let your voice take over the introduction. If the voice doesn’t take over the introduction but allows the other voices to come in, you would have more than done your duty.

You don’t have to be a Dalit. You are not a Dalit. You will never be. You can never be, and if you try to be, they will resent it. We’ve got to do this stuff, until such time as 10 years from now, 20 years from now, there will be no Jerry Pintos translating, there will be Dalits translating Dalits. Till then let’s do what we have to do and implicate the self and say, yes, I am standing here, I did this.

Stuti. I study at a Central University. For my undergraduate course, Dalit literature was not seen as a legitimate paper. I have never had access to it on its own and even the professors there approach it in a very restricted way. So, if we don’t see Dalit literature or translation as legitimate exercise or a legitimate academia, how far can we achieve that dream, if it is a dream that as of now, 10 years later a Dalit woman or a Dalit child be able to express themselves without a Savarna woman having to intervene?

Jerry. Every dream has a negotiation element. The presence of the Savarna is the negotiation of the now. This is how it will be now. It may not be like that tomorrow. Dream that. But know this: Utopia may be postponed. What may come tomorrow may not be as good as what is today. So every moment of literary history is incomplete, its fraught, it is stained, it is broken, because it is human. If we expect that tomorrow there will be a beautiful moment where everything will be perfect, that will be just one more Utopian fantasy in a string of Utopian fantasies we have had. So don’t worry too much about it. What you need to do is archeology and excavation. There are many stories right now, that are being told by Dalit women to their children. The Grimm Brothers went from house to house and said tell me the story! Tell me the story! I feel we are so bad at this fundamental thing: documenting what we say to tell each other who we are.

Teacher. What you are talking about is actually a vague helpless historicity in our society among Indians[. . .]why? why? Why? why?

Jerry. I think it is because we have too much. I was in Boston for 3 months and in Boston if a poet happened to stay in one house for more than 10 minutes then there is a plaque. We have 11th century monuments falling into decay because there are now 10th century monuments, there are 9th century monuments, there are 8th century monuments—how many monuments will you look after, just let them go. This is the same thing with stories. The same thing with narratives.

Ten years ago, in Sophia Polytechnic, I asked my students how well they knew their mother. I then started an exercise: ‘the five thousand word essay on your mother’. You interview your mother, her family, her friends and you put together this five-thousand-word piece on her and you will take that piece and give it to your daughter, when and if you have a daughter. You will begin to break the silence on women. Don’t worry about other people’s historicity, worry about your own. Do you have a narrative? Do you have a feminine narrative in your family? Who is in-charge of this narrative? Who is in-charge of the archive? Who has your mother’s letters and diaries? If we each took responsibility for ourselves, our sense of historicity would strengthen and grow. If you can’t use your mother’s papers then take any woman’s papers. She doesn’t have to be a scientist or a doctor or a professor, she just has to be a woman. Strengthen historicity yourself. Don’t ask anyone else to do it.

Audience member. Now, my question is that, say 50-60-100 years ago, if a person was gay, but he was say was famous for some other work he had done. Being gay is a very small and a very exclusive and very personal for us right. And I am sure in those days . . .

Jerry Pinto. You think it’s personal? Very personal? No money was put into research when the AIDS epidemic hit the USA because it was a ‘gay’ disease that happened to ‘gay’ people and there were no ‘gay’ people at all. Read a book called, And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts and you will see how deeply entwined the personal and the political are at a certain point of time.

Sexuality is is a small part of their lives. Of course, it is not necessary for us to imagine that Oscar Wilde has no identity other than being a gay man. Or Isaac Newton has no identity other than being gay. There is no reason for us to box them in this. But we can see very clearly how exclusion—exclusion of the Muslim from public life—exclusion of the Mughals from our textbooks—affects our understanding of the plurality and diversity of India. If you feel comfortable and have an understanding of your students and class and you feel you can talk about plurality and sexuality and diversity, then please do. But if you don’t feel you can, you don’t have to. If you don’t feel it’s important, you don’t have to. That is the most important thing about teachers, you get to decide what’s important in your class. The way you say it, the way you talk to your students, everything. Whether you realise it or not, they are picking up on your cues. For example, you could say, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar headed the Constituent Assembly that wrote the Constitution of India and he was also a Dalit. You could also say Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar was a Maharashtrian. Or you could say Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar studied in Columbia University, came back and was put in charge of the Constituent Assembly. Or he took charge. Each one is true, each one presents a viewing, each one is a prism. In each of these cases, you have not departed from the historic fact but you’ve set an agenda. Self-implication requires you as a teacher to ask yourself what your agenda is in your selection of the facts. At the end of the day, ask yourself if you have been fair, if you have done your duty. __________________________________________________________________________________

Jerry Pinto is a poet, award-winning novelist and translator who lives in Mumbai. His translations include Daya Pawar’s Baluta, reputed to be the first Dalit autobiography in Marathi; Mallika Amar Sheikh’s I Want to Destroy Myself, the memoir of a poet who was married to Namdeo Dhasal, the founder of the Dalit Panther movement; and Vandana Mishra’s I, the Salt Doll, the autobiography of a Konkani-speaking woman who went on to become a star of the Gujarati and Marwari stages. Currently he is at work on translations of Mang activist Eknath Awad’s Strike a Blow to Change the World and Swadesh Deepak’s I Have Not Seen Mandu.

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