Midway through Jerry Pinto’s first novel, Em And The Big Hoom (2012), a window opens, briefly. The unnamed narrator, whose existence is overshadowed by his cyclonic, charismatic, mentally ill mother, gives us a glimpse of a life he’s rarely allowed to experience. “When Em was ‘high’, I could be a busy student, in every sense of the word. I could run amok in art galleries where I would write comments and sign them as John Ruskin or Clement Greenberg. I could watch two long movies back-to-back at film festivals. I could spend entire afternoons borrowing and returning books from three libraries in three different parts of the city.”
By the next page, we are sucked back into the black hole that is Em’s house. But something in this happy vision of student life must have stuck with Pinto. His new, wonderful third novel, The Education Of Yuri, plays out like those handful of paragraphs stretched over 400 pages. A bildungsroman set in Mumbai in the 1980s, it follows 15-year-old Yuri Fonseca as he meanders through his time at Elphinstone College, hungrily accumulating new experiences while simultaneously questioning every aspect of his life.
This novel is as unhurried and discursive as Em And The Big Hoom was focused and wrenching. Yuri leads the life Em’s son cannot—a college student with a relatively settled home life, high on potential, short on direction, with time on hand to think, fail, rethink. An orphan almost since the moment of his birth (his parents die in a car accident), he’s raised by his steadfast uncle, Julio—like the Big Hoom, a male authority figure of few words but utmost reliability. He’s a budding poet, with all the dreaminess and indecision the stereotype entails. Pinto lets us listen in on Yuri’s internal dialogues—though they are more like wrestling matches. Not one decision can be taken without Yuri turning it over in his mind, worrying it until it reveals its motives. “But thinking is what you do,” his classmate Muzammil tells him, “you’re thinking all the time and you’re thinking about your thinking.”
For a stretch, this is the tale of Muzammil and Yuri. Despite Yuri’s modest upbringing in Mahim and Muzammil’s in upper-crust Pedder Road, they find they are kindred spirits. Their meeting point is wordplay, a delight in the playful possibilities of language. In their first meeting, Yuri is impressed when Muzammil casually uses “misconstrued” in a sentence, and they immediately embark on a word game. A few pages later, Yuri says “subabul”, which sets them off on another stream of nonsense. This becomes their way of communicating, their conversations a series of non sequiturs, puns, obfuscations.
Pinto peppers their speech and the book with endless literary and cultural references. None of it is essential information—indeed, it’s revealing to note the kind of references that elude Yuri himself (for instance, Shakespeare, owing to his state board education). I doubt Pinto expects readers to know the Gooley-Gooley Witch, a Phantom story mentioned without context by the comics-obsessed Muzammil, or Israeli-British illusionist Uri Geller—someone’s wild guess for the person Yuri’s named for (it’s actually Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space). I recognised “sweet baboo” from Peanuts but had to look up Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great. Yet, Pinto recognises that glibness of this sort is currency for a certain kind of student—especially an arts student—each bit of arcana a way of letting people know how wide your horizons are.
Pinto would have been a young man about the same age as Yuri in the 1980s in Bombay. Like the author, Yuri inclines towards writing of all sorts, in particular poetry. Pinto paints a fond picture of the city’s poets, famous and fledgling, skilled and otherwise (none more memorable than a botanist who recites terrible blank verse at a poetry meet-up). Well-known writers like Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawalla make cameos. Sometimes—though not often—poetry informs the prose, like when Yuri is described as “full of Provencal mirth”, a borrowing from John Keats (“Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth”). Pinto has a matchless ear for dialogue and a way with unusually precise descriptions. Loneliness settles in “Yuri’s chest like wet sand”. The brown buildings around Kala Ghoda are like “dowager duchesses, trying to maintain their dignity”. Or this Wodehouse-ian line: “Sailee smiled but of the sort that scorned the spirit that could be moved to smile at anything.”
Yuri and Muzammil are so plainly right for each other—and so wrapped up in one another—that I expected their screwball chatter to continue through the whole book. But there’s a schism—one of those college things that could be sorted out with a conversation that never happens. This opens up space in Yuri’s life for Bhavna, a batchmate who becomes his first girlfriend and educates him in matters cultural and sexual. “He was ore; she was the smelter,” Yuri admits during a gallery visit as he’s “tried out on sculpture”, having failed to properly appreciate ragamala painting. Bhavna is a rich kid too but the real difference between them is attitudinal: Yuri’s never convinced about anything, while Bhavna is devastatingly sure of everything she says and does. I wondered, at two particular points in the book, how someone so self-possessed could respond with desire or contrition to flagrant cruelty from a boyfriend. I realised later that viewed without context, Yuri’s actions are even more inexplicable—it’s just that we are privy to his thought process.
Despite the Yuri doublethink (“Is it my city? It doesn’t feel like it”), the book is a marvellous evocation of 1980s Bombay. Yuri is a train- and bus-taker, but, above all, a walker (his friends are always jumping into taxis). We see the city take shape through his wanderings: eating freshly baked pav, sitting with a crush on crowded Marine Drive, becoming an unwitting courier for Naxalites in a bustling park. In one luminous passage, Yuri walks from Nariman Point to Churchgate, then decides to continue home “along the spine of the Island City”. He walks past Marine Drive, Chowpatty, Malabar Hill, taking in the Haji Ali Dargah, Siddhivinayak temple, Our Lady of Salvation church—Bombay as a melting pot of class and faith. And then he’s home: in Pinto’s beloved Mahim.
Like Em And The Big Hoom, The Education of Yuri ends with a drink, a remark, and a single unadorned sentence. A film adaptation might have ended with a scene from a few pages earlier, with Yuri buried in a group hug. He isn’t in a better financial situation or much wiser than when he started, but I took heart from his last poem, which we see mutate and improve over the course of several paragraphs. Yuri has finally found a use for all that fussing, indecision and second-guessing. Only now he can call it editing.