This new Jerry Pinto novel will be celebrated as a Bombay novel, an ancient Mumbai wonder. It is clearly rooted in Bombay’s topography, in its social geography, in its cultural history. But it is also a novel that appeals to all of us, whoever we are, wherever we are. I don’t know if we lose anything by not knowing Bombay or Mumbai, but I know that at least the novel works like any good literary work so clearly placed in its time.
This insistence on Bombay rather than Mumbai would have warned you that the novel is set in earlier times, in the 1980s. This is a novel set at a time when ‘urban Naxalites’ were still going out to take up arms against the system, when education was not just seen in functional/utilitarian terms, when liberalization and the rise of right-wing politics were yet to come, when people were getting ready to let go of a past but hadn’t yet seen the future.
This is a novel about a young man, Yuri Fonseca, and his coming of age at a time when everything seems meaningless. You grow up because of biology, you go to university because that’s what people like you do (from class XI itself in Mumbai!), you spend time wandering because isn’t that what life is? Jerry Pinto tells us that Adil Jussawalla called this “the first Indian existential novel”, and one can understand why he said that. Nothing really matters, life goes on, and if you’re the type, you capture death.
Yuri Fonseca is a budding poet and writer (yes, in English, the language he’s at home in, which is another cause of his sense of alienation – how can you be at home in English if you’re not part of the elite? ), an orphan raised by his uncle Julio who gives up his own career to take care of his sister’s son. Yuri finds it difficult to belong to a group, to make friends, because he comes from this background, one that is neither here nor there, with his uncle who is celibate, belonging to the Order of the Lay Contemplatives, not of this world nor from the world of the clergy who look down on him. This sense of non-belonging has to be overcome by Yuri as he gets his education of life – the education (the emphasis you find in the title) that would socialize him, that would make him independent, that would equip him to place in the world.
In a sense, this is the portrait of a writer as a young man. We see his evolution into the writer-journalist he becomes at the end of the novel. Yuri registers his thoughts, writes compulsively and tries not only to understand his experiences, but tries to turn his experiences into literature. He is relentless in criticizing his own writing. He repeats existentialism in one of the passages he writes about himself in the ninth grade: ‘We are born alone and we die alone. In between we reach other people. But loneliness seemed to be his natural habitat.’ He crosses out the lines and says, “Glib glib glib. Clumsy, yes, but not alone.’
This novel is about how he socializes, how he makes friends, including girlfriends (lose and find them), how he crosses boundaries and learns to fit in without losing his own identity – the hardest lesson of all. His friends, Muzammil, Bhavna, Bimli, Luigi and Arif, and the friendly drug addict of a bookseller, help him on his way. Just like Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawalla in their guest appearances.
This is as true a picture of college life as we’ve ever gotten in Indian-English fiction; bells ring all the time as we recognize our own colleges and teachers and events. This is an equally true picture of what was then India, including the Datta Samant-led Bombay factory strike. This is as good a novel as you will ever read this year.
Take a bow, Jerry Pinto.