I am back from Europe (from Germany and Budapest, specifically) after a short vacation, so here’s a story I wrote for Striptease, a new online magazine for comics. This was published on 18 October, the day I’d left for my trip. I had the chat with Jerry a long time ago – back in summer when I still lived in Delhi, and When Crows Are White was very new — but the article took months to materialize, partly because of my series of relocations, partly because I was returning to journalism after many years and kept writing and rewriting the first line. Nevertheless, this was a fun thing to do.
Jerry Pinto is a delight to interview but a daunting man to write about. The first is because he’s humble and engaging and startlingly perceptive about human nature. On the other hand, besides having claimed the Hindu Literary Prize last year for his debut novel Em and The Big Hoom, Pinto has a writing career behind him that is as old as twenty years. He is the author of eleven books, nearly each of them from a different genre. He hasn’t written a graphic novel before, but that probably made it the least surprising that this was going to be his next publication.
The book is called When Crows Are White and combines words by Jerry Pinto with black-and-white art by Garima Gupta. At 56 pages it’s a small book, but with wide pages for the reader to take in the detail and the eclecticness of the art. The characters are crows, an odd choice to make for a story, perhaps more so for a story for children, which is what it is. ‘I wanted to talk about the way in which we create the other, the way in which we define ourselves. In India, it’s one of the most important things,’ Pinto tells me over a chat conversation. ‘I wanted to write a fable. I tried several ways, but they ended up sounding preachy and horrible—so I let them fade into oblivion. Then one day, I saw a murder of crows attacking an injured crow. I tried to intervene but the injured crow pecked at me as if it would rather die at the beaks and claws of its own kind. And When Crows are White was born.’
It’s a story that goes straight for the heart, delicately sidestepping the familiar traps of cliché and patronization. Pinto, who has taught for many years and is an active campaigner for child rights, knows better than to take his young readers for granted. The framing story is a lesson in itself—a female crow called Saawri has a premonitory dream that the baby to be hatched from her egg is going to be white. In a murder of crows that is traditionalist to the point that every ‘unnatural’ crow is ‘culled’ without exception, that kind of anomaly simply has no space. To save the life of her unborn child, Saawri seeks recourse into the stories and myths of crows, and the reader follows her through them.
There are fascinating world-creation myths in the book, at least one of which I am sure I’ve never come across. ‘I think I invented the Aviana story, so yes, some of them came from my head,’ admits the author, adding smoothly, ‘but then, all myths have their origin in some head or the other, so I thought why not mine as well.’ The others are products of somewhat painstaking research, often with the help of the author Shanta Gokhale, whom Pinto calls ‘a national treasure for her spirit and her knowledge and her enthusiasm for other people’s ideas’.
Motherhood, child-hood (the act of being a child, rather) and bringing up children seem to be a recurring concern in Pinto’s work. Em and The Big Hoom—the fictionalized memoir of a son trying to save and survive his mentally unbalanced mother—is almost entirely constructed on this theme. When Crows Are White reads like an optimistic reversal of the novel, in which a mother tries to save her unborn child. When I put this observation to Pinto, he tells me, ‘I suppose there is some fascination with the way in which human beings are created. Perhaps that’s why the bildungsroman is such a big deal. Because it deals with the way in which a man or a woman may constitute himself or herself. I think, therefore, the primal fear and fascination with the figure of the mother comes from this recognition—that nothing will be as important in determining who you are. Which perhaps accounts for the image of the vagina dentata, the mother goddess who takes the baby in her arms and then bites off its head, the image of Kali, the power of Mariolatry that is at present shaking the Roman Catholic Church. But is it what I am fascinated by?’ He pauses, reflects, adds, ‘I’ll have to think about it. It’s an interesting observation, though.’
What brought him to the format of the graphic novel? ‘I think Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said it best when he said to me once in an interview, “When you’ve read a great deal of books, eventually you want to see your name on a spine.” And I spent my youth reading comics,’ says Pinto. ‘I read everything from Sad Sack to Amar Chitra Katha, from Tintin to Chandamama. I read Family Circus, Peanuts, Archie, and in between, only when the comics ran out, I would read books. Today, we call comics graphic novels so that we can escape the feeling that we’re being a little immature but a comic is a comic is a graphic novel is a graphic novel is a comic, if I may riff a little. And so, when I wanted to talk to children, I went back to Lewis Carroll’s Alice who falls asleep because her sister’s book has no pictures and no conversations.’
He offered the script to many publishers, initially with little success. One publisher advised him to work it into a short story to be put into an anthology of moral tales. Another said it wasn’t a book at all, just an outline. It finally struck a chord with Sayoni Basu, then editor at Scholastic India, who accepted it and brought Garima Gupta on board. Pinto and Gupta did not meet in person until a long time after the book was finished. And while he believes that the art in a graphic novel is always a meta-narrative, Pinto does not quite mind the lack of prior acquaintance. ‘I have never believed in doing someone else’s work,’ he says. ‘If I work with a designer, I may make suggestions, but mostly I’d leave the designer alone. I speak from my magazine experience.’
He enjoyed writing this book, but Pinto doesn’t know if he’ll write another graphic novel. ‘If something moves under the skin, I’ll do it again. It’s not easy. I’ve never been rejected as many times as I was rejected with Crows, and who likes being rejected, however kindly? So there’s always that conscious moment when you’re thinking, Never again,’ he says, but adding, ‘I’ve felt this for so many things. No more anthologies, I’ve said to myself. No more collaborations, I’ve said to myself. No more scripts. But somewhere deep inside, the need to say is surfacing, and suddenly one day, it’s there again and it’s in a form that you’ve just forsworn.’ As enchanted readers, I guess that’s something we all hope.