How Do You Love One With a ‘Different Mind’? Jerry Pinto Explains
With ‘A Book of Light’, Jerry Pinto dealt with people’s darkest memories and worked with them to rewrite the pieces.
Jerry Pinto, author of the powerful Em and The Big Hoom, has curated and edited a collection of 13 stories called A Book of Light: When A Loved One Has a Different Mind.
Pinto speaks to The Quint about both books and India’s dismal mental health infrastructure.
1) Mental illness across the board remains a difficult subject to talk about, let alone share personal stories about… What led you to create this collection (A Book of Light) and what were some of the biggest challenges along the way?
When my first novel, Em and the Big Hoom came out, I think the question everyone wanted to ask was: “Did this really happen to you? Was it the way it was? Did you grow up like that?” Often interviewers, readers, even people who had known me for years, hesitated to ask the question because they felt it would smack of prurient curiosity. Or, they were afraid that I might take offence.
The answer to that question was clear in my head. I had based my novel on what our lives had been like, what we had been through. But I had also written a novel and you do not put a real-life character into a novel; they will simply suck all the oxygen out of the rest of the book. That’s the funny thing about fiction: you have to try and make it sound like it must have happened that way while telling everyone upfront that nothing like this has happened except in your imagination.
Thus, Em and the Big Hoom was ninety-five per cent fact and ninety-five per cent fiction and the space between these two numbers, the intersection space between the two is the room I hope each reader will inhabit with her or his decision about what was fiction and what was not.
But these questions and the responses to the readings started me thinking. There was need for more dialogue, more conversations, about mental health. Many of the writers in this book were friends who had told me things and I went back to them and asked them if they would write about what they had been through.
That was the biggest challenge of the book: to have to go to someone and say: “Please, would you write about what you told me in confidence, one lazy afternoon, when the sun was bright outside and we were inside a cool room?”
2) There would have had to be a great deal of trust for the writers to share these stories — can you take us through the stories that have stayed with you? And how did you go about editing what are such personal and often traumatic memories?
I think we don’t know how much we must trust our editors. Perhaps some editors don’t know that either. I know I have had a very good run: in journalism, I had Hutokshi Doctor who was a magnificent editor – she could always cut past the frills and see the beating heart of the story. Then, there was Anil Dharker who would give each one of my wild ideas a running chance. Radhakrishnan Nair at Man’s World was also like that: someone who could see the possibilities in a half-baked story idea. But most of all, Ravi Singh, who has my complete trust. If I write something and Ravi won’t publish it, I won’t publish it anywhere else because I know it is not worthy of me. So I simply wipe it out.
When you have had that kind of luck, you try to pay it forward by trying to be that kind of editor.
But in the case of A Book of Light, I was dealing with people’s darkest memories and I had to get them to rewrite their pieces, often working with them, shaping these narratives into stories. I kept fearing I might inadvertently hurt someone, precipitate memories, catalyse something – but thank God, the writers were real troopers and came through.
3) In terms of access to help, what’s quite distressing is the low number of trained mental health professionals in the country…
India produces 22,000 doctors every year. In comparison, Maharashtra alone produces 2,00,000 engineers. Now, of those 22,000 doctors, how many do you think are going to end up specialising in psychiatry?
Access to health is an issue that we don’t even seem to consider important. Since the time of the first government, the health ministry has always been considered unimportant. And as anyone will tell you, the importance of a ministry is judged in terms of its budgetary allocations. We spend so little on health it’s shocking.
Consider how much the West bothers about it. Obamacare is a national concern; the National Health Service is a holy cow in Britain; the French will send you someone to help with your baby when it has just been born; and in India? Our cancer-stricken patients recover from chemotherapy sitting on the road, with toxic fumes of passing cars blowing in their faces.
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