Jerry Pinto’s Search for Truth

Jerry Pinto's Search for Truth
Jerry Pinto's Search for Truth

Jerry Pinto’s new collection of poetry, I Want a Poem, is dedicated to “Nissim, Adil, Arun and Eunice”, with a parenthesis: “Hang in there, Adil!”

To the uninitiated: these are the poets of the Bombay school — Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar and Eunice de Souza. The Bombay poets of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s have been identified by literary scholars such as Anjali Nerlekar and Laetitia Zecchini as representatives of a sort of post-colonial modernism in India, similar to the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, the Baroda group of artists, or the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Kolatkar, along with Jussawalla, Gieve Patel and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, set up the legendary Clearing House publishing cooperative in 1976 to bring out their own books which mainstream publishers would not. In his poem ‘Our Generation’, Mehrotra remembers:

As others go their ways
we came ours
in sixties Bombay
and stuck together
through thick and thin.
The times evened out.

The times have indeed changed. When Pinto published his previous book, Asylum (reissued by Speaking Tiger) in 2003, Ezekiel, Kolatkar and de Souza were all alive and writing. Now, only Jussawalla continues. (His last book was reviewed in this column). Pinto is acutely aware of this passage of time and locates himself in the modernist tradition of Indian poetry in English as he continues his search for a new idiom of poetry.

Several poems in this collection are concerned with the art and place of poetry. In the title poem, the narrator seeks different kinds of poems, ones that are like a tropical forest, or a Russian circus, or an animal that can be eaten, besides various other things:

I want a poem like a Russian circus;
You know it has been trained.
No ordinary everyday poem could leap like that,
No quotidian poem could shimmer, spangle, exult like that.

One might trace in this poem resonance of W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’. Written at a late stage in his career, Yeats’s poem advises a poet to search for poetry “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. In other words, make themselves vulnerable. But the spectacle of the circus as an idiom for art has appealed not only to 20th century poets but other artists as well — from Bertolt Brecht and Jerzy Grotowski to Alejandro Jodorowsky and Raj Kapoor

In ‘Our Trade’, the narrator contemplates on the ability of poetry to be a vessel for truth or untruth:

I suppose I could lie
It’s easily done and can be forgiven
As long as the lie is good and smooth
And leavened with a touch of the truth.
What’s fiction but a lie well told?
I could lie but the truth is
Our trade begins in magic.

The reference to magic is in fact a nod to the magical realists and Infra-realists of the Caribbean and Latin America, who stretched the possibilities of prose narratives in their novel when confronted with the institutionalised untruth of late-20th century dictatorships. In our contemporary society, reeling from an erosion of democratic freedoms, a poet might seek asylum in fictions. Too much truth could land them in jail.

Pinto is familiar with both the art of fiction and non-fiction (as well as translations). He is the author of two novels (Em and the Big Hoom and Murder in Mahim) as well as a well-regarded biography of actor Helen. He also co-authored a biography of Leela Naidu (who was incidentally married to  poet Dom Moraes). Pinto was also a journalist for years and continues to write for different newspapers and magazines. He is well aware of the crosscurrent of the polarising contest between narratives that has become symptomatic of our times:

Words, words, words, he said 400 years ago
Even before the pocket book revolution.
What do you think he’d say now as the words
Pour in sludgy militant flood out of every profligate mouth?

Such concerns also inform Pinto’s contemporary Ranjit Hoskote’s new book of poems, Hunchprose. Both Pinto and Hoskote imagine poetry to be a trade and the poet to be a trader in a bazaar – or rather, the free market of ideas. In this market, words are freely available for buying and selling (like Twitter or Instagram followers).

“I would buy words because you can’t eat words,” writes Pinto in ‘Buying Words’, “but I sell words that I may eat.” The crisis in the world of words is graphically mapped; there is also a search for a resolution. While in one poem (‘I Want a Poem’), Pinto advises the reader to not get addicted to words, in another one (‘My Poems’), he declares: “My poems are dangerous.” The poet and the poetry are subject to surveillance from the Interpol and the FBI. Poets have been thought of as dangers to society since Platonic times. They have embraced their status of being outcasts or outsiders. Pinto seems to throw in his lot with those poets who court danger by speaking the truth.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published last year; he teaches at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Gupta writes a fortnightly column on poetry, ‘Verse Affairs‘, for The Wire.

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