Two young Goans fall in love as they wander in and out of bookshops—a pretty girl and a dapper young man who buys flowers for all the women in his office. They date for far longer than is respectable, and eventually build a family in a tiny flat in Bombay. The dapper young man becomes The Big Hoom, keeper of the family, while the pretty girl becomes the unpredictable Em, a woman who makes cancer disappear, a woman who says the funniest and unkindest things, who says the most profound and most understanding things. Her children never know when an everyday remark will turn into a conversation about sex, when an irritated retort will be smoothed out by gentle empathy.

Jerry Pinto’s novel looks at schizophrenia both from the inside and outside. We see the perspective of the carer, of the family that must deal with taunts from the world as well as from Em; we see the perspective of the world to which we belong, where the mentally ill become laughing stock or dangerous, where they are sent to clinics and given anti-depressants, or institutionalised and given electro-convulsive therapy.

I’m sure you get asked this a lot—but, since your non-fiction work was so much about Bombay, I expected a distinct sense of place from Em and the Big Hoom. On reading it, though, I felt it could have been set anywhere—Madras, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore. Was it your intention to cut out all the noise from outside?

At one level, all authors try to make sure that they root their novels in specificities and “place” is one of those; at another level, all of us also try to make sure that we have something going on that will take the book beyond its immediate setting, that will liberate the characters so that they can invade the minds of the readers and acquire new lives, new faces, new identities. When you’re writing a book, you don’t think: do I want this to sound like a Bombay book or do I want it to sound like an Anywhere book?

You work with what you have, the needs of dialogue or moving the story on or setting up a character. You work with what the sentence demands. You work with what the noun phrase is apposition can do. And then you hope that it all comes together in a larger whole.

And yes, when you’re dealing with something like illness, you get to focus. No, you have to focus. Things become clear, sharp. This must be done; that must be understood. Everyone who has ever dealt with an illness, either in the self, or in a loved one, knows that tunnel vision is a given.

You can’t look beyond because each looking seems like a betrayal of the demand for attention. You see it in the bedside vigil, the careful attention people pay to the body on the bed: they seem to be pushing their attention at the person, as if attention can heal.

As a sort of corollary to that, the Bombay here comes through in the cramped space, where everyone seems to be in everyone else’s way, and yet the deep isolation—of Em who goes through so much when the family is not around, and of the family itself, which can’t turn to anyone for help. Do you agree?

I suppose so. That, I think, is for you to say.

You’ve spoken of how a large part of the novel is autobiographical. But I’m sure there is a lot of embellishment, of recasting, and fictionalisation too. What were the big challenges with balancing the two? Because, in some ways, this is reality in the guise of fiction, and vice versa.

I think everyone who ever tells a story recasts it. Let us imagine that you, Nandini Krishnan, are telling someone about how you went out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and how the waiter spilled soup on you. This is a fairly basic story which relies on the element of surprise—a waiter at that restaurant?—and at an implicit recognition that schadenfreude will get them laughing—look at Nandini in her lovely outfit, now covered in bouillabaisse.

Now as you begin telling the story, a true story, let me add, you start by looking at your audience. Do they know this restaurant? Perhaps they are not from your city. So you begin, “I was at The Orchidia, a very fancy restaurant with a menu that looks like an illuminated manuscript from the British Library…” Will you say that? Or will you say, “I was at The Orchidia where you pay to breathe and it is the maitre d’s job to sneer at you”? Or will you say, “At The Orchidia, an eaterie as pretentious as its name…”?

Already, you are turning this event in your life into a story. You are narrativising it. You are now going to select details.

“I thought I couldn’t go wrong with the bouillabaisse…”

Or will you say: “Soup. I just needed soup.”

Will you prolong the story, talk about looking around the restaurant, about your table companions? Or will you go in quickly for the punch. Will you say, “Soup. I wanted soup. I just didn’t want it pouring down my blouse”? Or will you use the word “cleavage” with its suggestion of naughtiness? Each word has its own weight and ring.

This exaggeration, this elongation, this build-up, these choices… all this belongs to the world of literature, of storytelling and of literary analysis. We do it all the time, novelists. But we do it all the time as journalists, as raconteurs, as gossips. We take what happens and we change it into stories.

So when people ask, “Is it autobiographical?” I say it is 95 per cent autobiographical and I say it is 95 per cent fiction. It is not about the Pinto family; it is about the Mendes family.

In India we dehumanise anyone who is not like us, whether it’s on the basis of caste, creed, religion, colour, diet or mental health. If Othering were an Olympic sport, we would take home gold medals every four years.

But I also maintain that every one of my books is autobiographical. I believe that most of what we write is autobiographical. I did not write Helen: the life and times of an H-Bomb (Penguin India) only because I was interested in cinema but because I am interested in the people on the periphery, the marginal.

I chose to accept Leela Naidu’s offer to write her autobiography with her, the book that resulted in Leela Naidu: A Patchwork Life (Viking, Penguin India), only because she haunted my youth, as one of those ethereally beautiful faces that can determine your aesthetic.

So Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company) is not my first autobiographical book, although it is my first novel. 

And as a writer of fiction, you have a certain duty to your writers. If you are writing non-fiction, your first duty is to the truth, or such aspects of the truth to which you have access.

If it happened in such a way, as a non-fiction writer, that is the way in which it happened and you cannot alter the order of events simply so as to make them more interesting or to provide the right trajectory to your story.

Fiction brings freedom with it.

Did you feel you owned your characters? Or was writing Em and the Big Hoom in some ways like the biographies you had written? Did you, for instance, feel you needed permission from people who may be in the book? Or were you worried about how they would feel after reading your versions of their stories?

One owns every word one writes but only as one writes it. As soon as it’s read, it becomes a joint holding. One invents characters and then sends them out into the world, one’s heart in one’s mouth, and then one discovers that they have other independent lives that one will never understand. This is why the unpublished manuscript is so sad; those words and the characters built of those words will never have a chance at inhabiting other minds.

Next, I haven’t ever worked on biography in the classic mode. I worked on Helen without the actor’s cooperation because I wanted to work on the image of Helen, the characters she inhabited on the screen and their part in our national consciousness. I was not interested in her as a person. I was interested in her lives as a screen icon. With Leela Naidu, it was different. She told me her stories, I patched them together into a narrative, a kaleidoscope, an archive that I hoped would be auditory in one sense: I wanted Leela’s voice to come across.

By the time the book was written, my parents were dead. I showed it to my sister, Andrea Pinto, my first reader and the person who has, through her work as a librarian, made so much of my intellectual life possible. She said, “Too many commas.” Reassured, I sent it off to Ravi Singh, my editor and publisher.

You’ve said this was the first book you ever started working on. Did you always know you wanted to publish it, or did you at any point think you may write it simply for yourself?

I think one writes very few things for oneself. I don’t actually think it is possible to write for oneself because language is a shared act and making language work relies on multiple shared acts and a common understanding that when I say “chair”, you understand what I mean. So one can feel for oneself because there are always going to be a million more emotions than words to describe them but as soon as one starts to write, whether it is a novel or a diary entry, a letter to oneself or an open letter to the President of India, one presupposes an audience. I write a diary every day. I write it for the Jerry Pinto of the future, the man who will want to know what his own life was like. That’s a joke, a delusion. I write it for posterity in the vain, fond sad hope that it will be interested in me. I write in secret to be discovered. If you have not discovered this about your secret writings, it is because you have not thought about them clearly and coldly enough. And it is only by training a cold hard eye on the self—and a warm empathetic eye on everyone else—that we may get any closer to the truth.

Oh duck, I am beginning to sound pompous.

Kick me, someone.

One of the things most of us, in India at least, don’t like to think about or talk about is mental illness. When someone in the family is schizophrenic, we’re sometimes even ashamed of it. By writing the book, were you also trying to reach out in a way to others, to tell them it’s okay? Or form a sort of community like the narrator does with the families of psychiatric patients in the book?

I was in Shillong recently for the CALM Literary Festival 2013. I was privileged while there to meet Dr Sandi Syiem, a psychiatrist who has set up San-Ker, a beautiful home for those whom mental illness has disabled. It is among thousands of pine trees that Dr Syiem protects and it is democratic in that there are no special rooms, only dormitories. It is a place of peace because when I have walked through other mental hospitals and psychiatric wards, I have always felt the density of pain, the pressure of untold stories, the silences of unheard voices. Here, I met a painter of extraordinary power, a school-going boy rescued from an abusive mother, a drug abuser who was celebrating 79 days of being clean.

Later, I talked with Dr Syiem who pointed out that even in the United Kingdom, mental health workers were trying to combat the stigma of mental disease. So what then of India? India is a hundred years behind the times in its discourse on mental health.

Psychiatric social workers in mental hospitals are found handling psychotropic drugs when they are not supposed to. And yet the argument is that there are so few trained psychiatrists in the country while compared with the population of people who need treatment. There is no time to have therapy sessions with all those who need help and so shocks and pills are often used to cure the symptoms.

You are creative if I can turn your oddness into material gain, if I can put it into a market. You are mad if I cannot find a way to commercialise your oddness 

For Indian society, the interest in a person with mental illness remains largely voyeuristic. In Bollywood, there’s usually a comedic element to it; the mad man is shown jumping about, dancing jerkily or talking to God. The other mentally ill characters are psychopaths and murders.

In India we dehumanise anyone who is not like us, whether it’s on the basis of caste, creed, religion, colour, diet or mental health. If Othering were an Olympic sport, we would take home gold medals every four years.

I read an interview in which you said that the only reason for a writer to write a book is that s/he wants to tell the story, and that a book finds the readers it is destined for. What are the most interesting or touching responses you’ve had from readers?

A teenager came up to me and said he would try and hug anyone who was suffering from a mental illness. I didn’t think this a very good idea and explained to him that many people suffering from such disorders might feel invaded, abused, terrified even. Some autistic children don’t even want their parents to hug them and must learn physical intimacy as others might learn a language. But I could see that he was trying to work out something in his head and that’s always a beginning.

At another reading, a woman confessed that her parents had locked her brother up for five years because they didn’t understand what he was going through. But most of all the revelation has been how many people come up and say, ‘My brother…’ or ‘My mother too…’ or ‘My aunt was…’ We aren’t six degrees of separation away from mental illness. We are next door to it, sometimes even inside our own heads.

Em and the Big Hoom talks about the use of electroconvulsive therapy at institutions for the mentally ill. While doing your research, did you find that it is still in use? If so, what did doctors have to say on the subject?

Last year, I went to visit a friend who was in a psychiatric ward. He was recovering from depression. He had been given ECT. In the next bed was a 14-year-old boy admitted because he was hyperactive in class and would hit fellow students. The boy said he was getting electric shocks too. When I questioned the nurse, she said his parents had consented to the use of electro-convulsive therapy. This was in Bombay, a city well-served by psychiatrists; in a hospital that had two staff psychiatrists.

Now consider what might happen in small-town India. In a village?

If you ask anyone who recommends it, they say, it works. Yes, it does erase depression but it also effaces the personality. You bring a depressed human being in and you take home a zombie. This is like saying, “we cured the disease but the patient died”.

There are many factors one needs to take into account while defining madness. But, in schools, colleges, and workplaces, there is always someone who is classified as “odd”, “a little off”, “eccentric” or “weird”. What do you think are the dangers of defining “normal”, of setting a standard that people must conform to?

In her book Two Accounts of a Journey through Madness (1991), Mary Barnes talks about her childhood. She was interested in her own excreta and began to dig it out of her body and store it under her bed. Her mother discovered this and was horrified and berated the child and made her promise never to do it again. She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic later but survived and became an artist.

In 1961, around the time Mary Barnes was growing up, Piero Manzoni took his shit, put it into cans and labelled it as such: Merde, or Artist’s Shit. He offered these cans to buyers. The last recorded price for one of these 90 cans was nearly £100,000.

If you compare these two moments, you will see a clear contradiction and a clear resolution.

You are creative if I can turn your oddness into material gain, if I can put it into a market.

You are mad if I cannot find a way to commercialise your oddness.

I’m going back to the fact that this was the first book you started writing, and have published many books, edited many, and written pieces for many in the years that you were working on Em and the Big Hoom. Did you ever worry that you may never publish it at all? Or that you may never finish it?

I am always worrying about the fate of my words. I want to write economically. I want to write only that which is necessary. Because as David Davidar pointed out at the CALM Festival, it is work, it is manual labour, it is one word after another. But I also know that I have to work through that fear and produce what I can. I have to hold on to the faith that inside there, something will remain that I want to put my name to.

So one never knows and one can only hope.

What has writing the book, and speaking about it done for you, in terms of looking back at your own life, and looking ahead?

There is a terrible danger one will believe one’s own press, that it will all degenerate into narcissism. This interview is no exception. I am a firm believer in: Trust the art, not the artist.

Since this is your first work of fiction, did you wonder while writing it whether you were writing like anyone particular, like your favourite authors, or the people whose fiction you admire most? If so, how did you react? As in, did you leave the book alone for a while and get back to it, or continue writing and decide to sort it out later?

Has Harold Bloom cured us of the anxiety of influence? I fear not. I hope so. One knows that one is standing on the shoulders of giants. Who would refuse such a perch?

Your other books have all involved a lot of research about the people involved, be it Helen or Leela Naidu, chats with them, articles about them, letters and so on, right? For this book, did you go back to your diaries, letters, and the other material that belonged to your family? I mean, aside from the letters that Em exchanges with The Big Hoom, which you’ve written about in the book itself.

The letters do not exist. I invented them. The diary entries do not exist. I invented them. I wrote fiction. I did not use material that existed. I would not put my name to a book if I had used other writer’s material. Possibly, other writers’ techniques, their tricks. But not their words. Not even my mother’s or my father’s words.

You’ve said that you can’t write anywhere outside Bombay, though you can edit. You wrote this book while living in the same flat where the actual events played out. What were the advantages of this? And were there any disadvantages?

No advantages, no disadvantages. The space does not really matter, though at some level, it also does. I don’t know how to explain this. I don’t think the flat has anything to do with it. I don’t think the city has anything to do with it. I cannot write, I said, outside the city, but then I spend a very little time away from it. My longest absence from the city of my birth has been four months, as a Chevening scholar of the Foreign Office of the British government. So I have never actually had to check whether I can write somewhere else. It’s just that I don’t.

A lot of the exchanges with Em are funny when one reads them in the book, but it suddenly struck me that it might have been terrible to actually live those moments. Do you see the humour in it now? Did you at that time?

Humour always has a streak of cruelty in it somewhere. We laugh when the clown falls on his bottom because we know that it is a loss of dignity that he has suffered. Almost all humour has its cruel side. Some things can be difficult but the funniest things are those that were the most difficult when they were being endured.

But where is the line? It’s a social construct really; we are always invited to laugh at the person who suffers a mental illness and believes himself to be Napoleon; we are never invited to laugh at the person suffering from cancer.

But as a writer, you’re never off duty.

There is a lot of preoccupation with language in your conversations with Em. She seems to look at language differently, like a child sometimes. At others, she says something profound and insightful, in the way a very good book critic would. Did her—I wouldn’t say love for, but engagement with—language drive you towards writing?

Possibly. I don’t know. I suppose nature and nurture were both at play but my career as a writer might never have happened had it not been for a friend, Rashmi Palkhivala nee Hegde. She would keep saying that I should write for the papers, I should write funnies. I said, only half-joking, that my ego would not take rejection. So she said, ‘You write them, I’ll type them and take them to the editors. You won’t have to know whether they reject you or not.’ In the next week, 14 pieces came pouring out of me. She typed them up and took them to Mid-Day. They accepted 12. I was over the moon but within 20 seconds, I was asking: “Which were the two they didn’t like? And why didn’t they like them?” The Buddha was right, there is no end to desire.

Did it make you extra careful with the words you used while writing? I remember that, in your interview with Madhu Trehan for News Laundry, you spoke of how your mother sang “I surrender something” instead of “I surrender all” at church.

I like to think that I do what I do with care. Whether it is as a board member of MelJol which works in the sphere of child rights, a teacher of journalism at the Sophia Institute of Social Communications Media, a journalist, a columnist, whatever. I know I often let myself down but I try hard.

Is that me or my father reminding me that it’s my name that’s going to be attached to whatever I do? I don’t know.

As journalists, or as people who review books, we’re prepared for some degree of self-indulgence in a memoir. Do you think your own was self-indulgent? Or that it escaped this because it was more a memoir of your mother and your family than your own self?

If I had seen a self-indulgent bit, I would have cut it out. But so would any other writer. Which writer wants to be called self-indulgent? But it’s difficult to tell when you’re so close to the material.

Your book has a character subverting the idea of “mad’” by being rational enough to classify herself as “mad”. In a way, it’s a reclamation of the word, a redefinition, like homosexuals calling themselves “queer”. Do you think this was Em’s little resistance movement, a war against stereotyping, against a world that expected normalcy?

Families have various ways of dealing with such situations. One method involves confronting the problem and dragging it out in the open. Using the word “mad” lightly and tossing it around is a way of trying to defang it and turn it into something ordinary and everyday. The protagonists are being ironic, facetious even but they’re trying to find a way to handle what is happening to all of them.

While it’s said as a joke, it’s also terribly serious. When Em calls herself mad, she is challenging people to examine what they are saying about her. Because if you’re called mad, it’s because you’re seen as not being in step with the universe. And at some point in time, every one of us has felt that we are marching to a different drummer.