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Coffee and Cakes with Geralyn Pinto

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Geralyn Pinto is a rising talent in English letters. She won the Third Prize in the 2013 International Shakespearean Creative Writing Contest organized by the Save as Writers group, Canterbury, UK. She also won the Runners-up Prize in the 2005 Outlook Magazine – Picador (India) Non-Fiction Writing Contest Prize and First Prize for her short story Two is Company in the 2010 Unisun-Reliance Timeout Creative Writing Contest. Her story Two Flew Over on the theme of child labour was one of the three winners of the 2013 International Desi Writers Lounge Contest. More recently she was declared one of the three winners in the 2014 International Desi Writers Lounge Contest for her short story Shanthi Smells of Smoke. Geralyn Pinto is currently the Head of the English Department at St. Agnes College (Autonomous), Mangalore. Twist & Twain catches up with her to know more.

 T & T: Namaste, Geralyn. We are very glad to know that you have spent the early part of your life in Assam. Do you have any fond memories of North-east India and its way of life? What have you learnt about this region? And when is the last time you visited it?

Geralyn: Yes, indeed I do remember Assam. I lived in ‘Nambari’, the North East Frontier Railway Colony in Maligaon for about a year. That was a long time ago – 1968-69, so far as I remember. Sadly, when my father was transferred to Southern Railway and we moved to Madras in May ’69, the ‘Assam’ days of my life drew to a close. I never visited it again. But I have clear recollections of the Garo Hills and cattle grazing peacefully on the slopes even when a fine rain fell like a curtain of muslin every day at about noon. I also remember clambering up a little hill track by the side of which a brook wended its way along. My father, sister and I would climb to the low peak and visit the villagers in their huts. They were gentle folk, working hard, both the men and women, on their fields and at their household chores. I would ask to be allowed to sift grain from husk and the women would wait patiently while I made a mess of things and managed to scatter grain and retain husk.

There was wildlife too – jackals, hyenas and a panther, too, the pug marks of which Dad discovered in the flowerbeds in our garden one day! I was frightened out of my wits by the jackals which came out in packs at night. They concealed themselves in wayside bushes and could only be discerned when their gleaming eyes were picked out by the headlights of a motor vehicle.

We took long drives to the library of Assam University when a much older sister of mine was appearing for her university exams. There were times when we saw the sun setting over the magnificent Brahmaputra as we drove across the bridge that spans the river. Interestingly, when we arrived in Madras and moved into our colonial style railway bungalow on Sterling Road in Nungambakkam, we found that the railway houses were named for India’s rivers. And guess what our house was called? Brahmaputra! The joke in railway circles was that the Pintos had come from the banks of the Brahmaputra and now lived in it!

T & T: Your writing talent is taking you places. Did you become a writer by accident or was it a childhood dream? When was the first time you ever wrote anything? What motivated you to become a writer?

Geralyn: No, I think that I became a writer by providential design and not by accident. I loved reading from as far back as I can now remember, as also narrating stories I had made up to my older brothers and sisters, to my dolls, and to the snails in my mother’s flowerpots. So, in sense, I was always a story teller but not a formal writer – till much later on in life. I wrote two poems in my 1st and 2nd year MA respectively and these won prizes at the ‘Rotaract Budding Poets Contest’ held for students in 1983 and ’84. That was probably the first time I wrote something of significance. I must let you in on a secret. About twenty-six years ago, this year, I had a near-fatal encounter with ulcerative colitis. I am now living again – a second chance. This was a watershed experience which sloughed off a dead layer of life, so to speak, and gave me a new surface on which to live and grow. I promised myself that I would give every unforgiving minute sixty seconds worth of distance run. (My acknowledgement here to Rudyard Kipling.) This resolve included filling my life with good things like learning new things and pursuing both creative and research writing. My brush with death therefore was one motivating factor. The other was my dearly loved, late mum who inspired me to do my best and applauded my ‘victories’ the loudest. I have always wanted to make her proud of me and I still want to continue doing so.

T & T: You have travelled widely. Your works have also been featured in foreign journals. Did your varied experiences in exotic lands help you form the background of your stories? Or do ideas flow to your mind just out of nowhere?

Geralyn: It wasn’t travelling or visiting far-flung places abroad that shaped my stories or formed their background. India and the parts of it I’ve seen, loved and lived in form the milieu of most of my stories. However, in June 2012 I was looking further afield than India in which to publish my stories and participate in contests. I had already made a dent on the Indian scene, winning prizes at the national level and being featured by the well-known Outlook Magazine and by publishing houses like the erstwhile Unisun, Bangalore. In the summer of 2012, I chanced upon an ‘Inspired by Dickens’ contest being organized by ‘Save as Writers’, England who advertized themselves as “Canterbury’s Liveliest Creative Writing Group!” I participated with a poem on Fagin that actually made it to the shortlist. In the process, I became acquainted with Luigi Marchini, Founder Chairman of Save as Writers and a published and prize winning poet himself. Luigi used his good offices to get me into a British online writers group – Alibi and I continue to remain its only overseas member and participate enthusiastically in their monthly writing workshops. The discipline of writing on a given prompt or set of prompts and that too in an hour; the experience of reading the excellent pieces authored by other members and having them comment on mine made my writing take quantum leaps forward. Without Alibi, I would have been a little ‘writer frog’ in a Mangalorean ‘literary well’. Through my acquaintance with ‘Save as Writers’ and the contacts and friends I have made in Alibi, I have received tremendous exposure. Both my writing and my reading have vastly expanded. I have become familiar with new styles, new writers and new narrative techniques. I have been inspired to read prize winning and published poets and short story writers from a host of journals, and in contests beyond ‘Save as Writers’ itself. My membership of Alibi, therefore, been the greatest shaping influence on m stories – and poems, too!

T & T: Most writers tend to stick to literary genres that they are comfortable with. Some dabble in crime and thrillers, romance, literary. Which is your chosen genre and why?

Geralyn:  Come to think of it, I have no one chosen genre. I have written stories of human interest, the supernatural, science fiction and romance. And bizarre combinations of the above. I did try my hand at the whodunit, but wasn’t terribly successful. So I plan to try it again with the benefit of the experience that I have subsequently gained.

T & T: You have a full–time teaching job. Does it interfere with your writing or, on the contrary, does it instead help you in the writing process?

Geralyn:  My teaching job has in fact helped me develop and hone my craft. For instance, in the years when I pursued my MPhil and PhD, I did a great deal of reading – especially novels and short stories  – and I read for ideas, technique, language and style apart, of course, from the application of critical theories to an analysis of these texts. And I must say that every bit of purely academic writing and reading helped my creative writing in many more ways than I can here state. The same holds good for my teaching: the novels, short stories and poems; the ideas contained in these; their diverse narrative/poetic techniques, language and style have fired my imagination and creativity and pointed new paths to be followed in my own writing. Without the shaping influence of my academic work and teaching, I dare say, I would have been a writer stamped with the seal of mediocrity! Undoubtedly though, there are times when the routine of being a teacher: the mundane tasks of filling in forms, taking attendance, making entries in ‘Teacher’s Diaries’, and the host of tiny, humdrum tasks from attending staff meetings to dull ‘input’ sessions, have left me chafing and longing to be back where I belong – at my keyboard and in the ‘sequestered vale’ of my bedroom where literary creativity flows most abundantly and consistently.

T & T: Don’t you feel that writers, rather than holding day jobs, should stay at home instead and focus on writing only? The more time they are at home, the more they can dream and write. Is it not so?

Geralyn: No, I really don’t think so. You would be under too much pressure if you were depending, in a financial sense, solely on your writing. And that would definitely cramp your style, wouldn’t it? I think that you should have a safe and steady, even if plodding, job so that you could really enjoy writing for its own sake. Bertrand Russell said that one should always have a separate steady source of income and pursue one’s passion as a hobby on the side until such time as one attained significant success. Only then can one afford to make a career out of a passion. So wait till you are an ‘industry’ in your own right, as Rushdie or Ghosh is, and then stay at home and write with singular devotion. I was very fortunate that my career and my writing dovetailed into each other, so to speak, and that the former brought home a steady and decent salary. That way I could devote myself to my creative pursuits to the point when writing and college teaching became almost parallel careers.

 T & T: Writers love hoarding books. Do you have a personal library?

Geralyn:  Yes, indeed, I do. I have books of fiction and non-fiction. I have many purely academic books in fields ranging from critical theory to astronomy and calculus. Further, I inherited books from my father and grandfather both of whom remarkably academic and intellectual. We have, at home, a vast collection of books – so there’s a family library apart from my personal collection. It might interest you to know that we have, among several others, an 1849 edition of Jane Eyre with a foreword by William Makepeace Thackeray, and a preface by ‘Currer Bell’ as Charlotte Bronte called herself in that age when women were obliged to publish under male pseudonyms. That book alone is a collector’s item which could be auctioned for a vast sum in British Pounds by Sotheby’s. Not that we would ever wish to do so.

T & T: Many writers began their literary career by writing poems. How did you take your first steps as a writer?

Geralyn: By writing short stories. Not poems, really. Indeed, I have always found myself naturally inclining towards the writing of stories. My longest stories to date have been in the region of 18,000 words. I hope, someday, to write a novel. But the composition of poems has always been a challenge, though I must admit that being in Alibi and working assiduously on burnishing my craft has made me grow more confident in my poetic style, introduced me to new techniques and generally made me more much more enthusiastic about being a composer of poems. (I do not yet dare call myself a ‘poet’.)

T & T: Which do you find easier–Writing fiction or composing poetry?

Geralyn:  I think that I have already answered that: writing fiction, of course!

T & T: Is there any author whose writings you wish you could emulate, whose shoes you would like to be in?

Geralyn:  Yes, many of them. Among the older set – John Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway and A.J. Cronin. Among the contemporary, most certainly, Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh. Short story writers and poets would include Anushka Jasraj and my friend in Alibi, Gillian Laker.

T & T: It is often seen that writers born in cities tend to write about city life whereas those with rural upbringing come up with rural stories. In India, writers with rural roots turn out to be the finest writers. Now, which appeals to you more— the city or the countryside?

Geralyn:  I’m afraid I’d find it hard to make a choice and have chosen different locales for different stories – both rural and urban. and a combination of both as in “Seven Steps from Irula Country” which switches between the scrublands of the Gudalur Plateau up in the Nilgiri Hills, and the plains and sea coast  of Tamil Nadu – Madras, in particular. (It was still ‘Madras’ then and not yet, ‘Chennai’.)

T & T: Every writer has somebody favorite, somebody who influenced their writing in some way. Who are your favorite writers?

Geralyn:  To repeat myself at least partially, my favourites include Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Anushka Jasraj, Gillian Laker, John Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Cronin, Bret Anthony Johnston, Jonathan Tell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, Manjula Padhmanabhan, Maggie Harris, Trevor Breedon, Roger James, Greta Ross, Luigi Marchini, and Salman Rushdie  – sometimes. The list is endless. I’ve read brilliant one time off stories or poems by people whose names I can’t even remember but who, in my opinion, would rank among the ‘greats’ in contemporary writing. I know that I have given you a hodge podge of short story writers, novelists, dramatists and poets of different generations, and listed in no particular chronological order – but there we are! I love and read and revere them all and wish to high heavens that I could write like they do! And I also love the canonical writers like the Bronte sisters, Hardy, Dickens, and in India, Tagore, R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Manohar Malgonkar. Not to speak of the Anglo Indian writers namely John Masters and E.M. Forster. Oh, and Ruskin Bond.

T & T: Writers need writers. Do you have author friends? How do they help you become a better writer?

Geralyn:  Yes, I do have author friends. And I wholeheartedly agree that writers need other writers. Their writing which they share with me – on Alibi and by email – has helped me improve my own. Their generous reviewing, editing and proofreading of my stories have given both shape and direction to my own creative efforts. I have incorporated their suggestions and their corrections into my writing with very happy and successful results. Here I must make special mention of my friend, Luigi Marchini whose help I value more than I can say.

T & T: How do you get the stories in your head?  Do you get random ideas from books and movies or real life experiences?

Geralyn:  The sources of inspiration and ideas for my stories have been wide ranging and dispersed: a remembered incident, or remark made by someone; the novels, stories and poems written by other people; the movies I see and songs I listen to; suggestions made by people; very importantly the ‘story writing challenges’ posed to me many years ago by Shruti P. Bhandary, a junior colleague of mine at St Agnes College, and the Alibi prompts for our monthly online workshops; life experiences, and the places I’ve been to, lived in or even dreamt about… There are so many wellsprings which have served as the origins of both my stories and poems that it is impossible to circumscribe them.

T & T: Has your writing journey been a smooth affair? Ever faced flak from your teachers or from any people during your writing process? Is your family supportive of you?

Geralyn:  The writing journey has not always been a smooth affair. There have been discouragers and detractors who very nearly succeeded in putting the cap on my creative writing efforts. Fortunately, I was born with a terrier-like tenacity of purpose and that helped me surmount negativity. But no, my teachers, per se, never discouraged me – those at Mangalore University, if anything, always spurred me on by pointing out that I was up to it; that I had a creative mind and was an original thinker and these would stand me in good stead as both a scholar and a creative writer. My father passed away before my creative writing career took off. But my mum, for as long as she lived, was extremely encouraging and supportive. She was ambitious for me and applauded all my little victories loudest in her heart. If I continue to write today with ever more determination, it’s because I want to make her proud of me, even though she isn’t physically present with me, anymore.  As for my siblings, there are those who take the trouble to read my stories with care and critique them; there are others who don’t, but are merely happy that I’ve notched up some successes in my chosen field of endeavour. I must here make mention of three nieces of mine – two of them the daughters of my younger brothers who themselves are twins; the third, the daughter of my eldest sister. They have been my strongest supporters, apart from mum. They read my stories and poems with enthusiasm and discuss them threadbare. They have helped me with proofreading and also the technicalities of electronic submission and payment of entry fees into contests. One of them is a young doctor, but I can have the most fruitful literary interactions with her. To these three: Lekha Mathias, and Dr Krista and Dominique Pinto, I owe the greatest debt of gratitude and affection.

T & T: Talking about your family, maybe you would like to tell a little something about your background. Do your siblings share your passion?

Geralyn:  We were a large family – parents and nine children. My father, Hugh Francis Pinto retired as Additional Member Traffic of the Railway Board, Additional Secretary to the Govt. of India. My mother, though a homemaker, was an extremely participative parent. Both my parents were remarkably intellectual and brought us up to be an exceptionally academic-minded family with diverse professions, several scholarly successes and a wide range of interests from the sciences and mathematics to the languages and the humanities. My father was as much at home with literature and history as he was the phenomena of Chemistry in which he specialized and topped in the Madras Presidency whence he graduated with a B.Sc. Hons. My mother did English and was a gold medallist. Between the two of them they produced children with professions in fields as diverse as chartered accountancy, medicine, software engineering, teaching, business administration, and oil accounting and auditing. Though each of us siblings is very different in temperament, values, interests and intellectual occupations bind us together. Most of them like reading very much – both technical and non-fiction books as also fiction and poetry. It’s amusing how my eldest brother, John who was a chartered accountant with Hindustan Lever and posted in Haldia at the time, would visit us in Jamshedpur and ask me for William Brown stories with which he could relax and unwind! I must add here that post retirement from the Indian railways, my father worked for the Tatas for almost a decade and we lived in Jamshedpur from which I completed High School at Sacred Heart Convent.

Do my siblings share my passion? Some do. My brother, Brian, himself an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and later, Senior Advisor Economic Growth with the World Bank, and my sister, Marie Coelho (after marriage) were the pioneering short story writers of the family. They took after my father in that respect. My brother Brian is, like my father before us, something of a poet too and loves learning languages. As a matter of fact, when he was posted to Russia and Poland as the World Bank’s representative to these two countries, he learned some Russian and Polish. Both Brian and Marie are older than I am and even as a child I was fascinated with their stories of detection, mystery and the supernatural. I recall that Marie wrote two stories of the supernatural, both of them based in Maligaon where we lived. And I was fascinated by them. I never dreamt, though, that one day I would keep the Pinto banner in the field of creative writing flying high!

T & T: When is your favorite writing time? Early morning or late night?

Geralyn:   It could be any time of day or night. But, generally, in the quiet of the afternoon or the still hours of night when everyone is resting and the household is at rest.

T & T: Do you have any particular goal or intention in writing a book, like, say, giving a message to the reader?

Geralyn:  Not always – and never obviously. Keats, I think it was, said that no reader likes writing with a ‘palpable design’. Further, the new thinking especially after Saussurean, postmodernist and deconstructive theories of language, is that narratives should be open ended – like life itself. It should have blanks for the reader to fill in with her/his own thinking. So I try not to write very complete, neatly tied up and safely concluded stories with clear-cut morals to teach. I believe in keeping them open-ended and offering grey areas so that the reader can make what she/he will of it. Further, since I prefer to show not tell, it is quite likely that what I mean to say or the point I mean to make is very different from what the reader makes of it. And, in fine, it is the reader who creates the text.

T & T: What do you like to do in your free time? Do you love anything else other than writing?

Geralyn:   I love reading and studying. I like mathematics very much – it is after all another language. So, in my spare time, I learn mathematics. In that I am assisted by good friends of mine, like Dr Adelaide D’sa, Head, Department of Mathematics, at St Agnes College.  I also sing and practice regularly. In fact, I belong to a women’s singing group called ‘The Enduring Echoes’. Further, I love housekeeping and cooking, as also watching movies and documentaries on YouTube. I do all these on a regular basis. I used to be a Sudoku fiend and I still like it very much.

 T & T: Where is your favorite place to write?

Geralyn:  In Mangalore – it’s at my computer desk and on the keyboard of my PC – in the quiet of my bedroom. I cloister myself therein and peg away into the late hours of the night. But I must admit that ever year, usually in summer, I take myself off to my sister-in-law and brother’s home in Pune. And in the guest room of their apartment, I write undisturbed and to my heart’s content.

T & T: Which works best for you— typewriter, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

Geralyn:  The keyboard of the PC now, though for ever so long it used to be the fountain and the ball point pen!!

 T & T: Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or ask someone to do it for you?

Geralyn:   I do read, re-read, edit and revise my own work. But I also request colleagues, friends, siblings and nieces to go over my work; point out typo or grammatical errors if any; and give me their informed critical opinion. I do this especially before entering a contest or submitting to a publishing house, magazine or literary journal that is important to me. And believe me, this has served me very well. The advice, suggestions and very honest critique that I have received from my friend, Luigi Marchini of ‘Save as Writers’, Canterbury, and from my nieces, Lekha and Krista, have shaped my work immensely. I owe them a great deal.

 T & T: You are an overseas member of the British literary group, Alibi. Please enlighten us about its activities.

Geralyn: I think that I have already answered this one.

T & T: If not a writer, what would you have been?

Geralyn:  It’s hard to say. I love scholarship, so I would have been an academic, anyway. But the field might have been different – mathematics or geography, for instance. I like both very much. I enjoy history, too; and archaeology and anthropology have always fascinated me. One thing for sure, I would continue to study. I believe in being a lifelong learner.

T & T: Name your favorite childhood book. And have you read comics?

Geralyn:  The Enid Blyton boarding school and mystery stories: the Famous Five adventures or those of Snubby, Roger and Diana are a permanent and precious part of my literary imaginaire. Well, if I must name a single book that I loved as a child, it will be Five Go to Smuggler’s Top. Oh, and I did read comics! They were a staple part of my literary diet. Classics Illustrated, Amar Chitra Katha, June and School Friend, Billy and Bessie Bunter, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and Star Picture Library Romance and Mystery Comics were among my favourites!! I even made my mother read them to cheer her up when the occasional illness confined her to bed.

T & T: Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?

Geralyn:  Of the older generation of writers my favourites are W. Somerset Maugham, A.J. Cronin and John Steinbeck. I love short story writers too, like Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle. But contemporary authors like Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, and numerous short story writers and poets with brilliant single pieces have inspired me and shaped my style; lent me food for thought and given me ideas. They have shown me how to say new things, or have a startling new take on old ideas/issues. From them I have learnt how to experiment with narrative technique and innovate with the use of language – Arundhati Roy, for instance. I have attempted the stream of conscious technique and learned how to keep narratives open-ended. From these I have learnt many, many things too numerous to list individually.

T & T: What projects are you working on at present?

Geralyn:   I’m working on a long story, “The Games Village” at the moment; but hope someday to actually sit down and write a novel. I have been repeatedly urged by friends, colleagues and readers of my stories to get an anthology of my short stories done – so I guess I will.

T & T: Do you think that literary contests are a good medium for showcasing one’s talent?

Geralyn:   Yes, indeed! I love entering contests – you may call me a ‘contest junkie’. But lightheartedness apart, the fact of your entering a contest, makes you put your best foot forward and that generally results in something of quality being produced, even should you not win eventually. Further, you become aware of how other contestants write – their styles, techniques, ideas; perhaps, you would familiarize yourself with the best of contemporary writing. A win positively boosts your confidence and lends wind to your wings. And a publication would mean that you are read and come to be known and recognized. So, yes, I highly recommend contests.

T & T: The lush hills of north-east India can be a great retreat for an author to exercise his imagination. If there is one place in this region which you would like to visit, which one would it be?

Geralyn:   Nambari railway colony in Maligaon and the surrounding green hills of Garo. That would be a wonderful trip down the happy lanes of childhood!

T & T: Do you have any lady author whom you look up to as a mother figure?

Geralyn: I like some works of women writers very much indeed. I look up to them as models to be emulated. But there is no one, single woman writer whom I would consider a ‘mother figure’.

T & T: And last, what is your take on Twist & Twain? Any suggestions for improvement?

Geralyn:  I think Twist & Twain is just fine. I am delighted that it has taken a great new step in the ‘right direction’ with hosting a short story contest. Perhaps, on its anniversary every year, Twist & Twain might consider coming out with one print issue? And a publicity drive via social media networks?  But these are only suggestions. I love the magazine as it is and I am pretty impressed.


Rajib Das

Rajib Das is the Founder Editor of Twist & Twain

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