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  Books   19 Nov 2022  Book Review | Quasi-autobiographical & sanitised trip back to 1980s’ Mumbai

Book Review | Quasi-autobiographical & sanitised trip back to 1980s’ Mumbai

Published : Nov 20, 2022, 1:38 am IST
Updated : Nov 20, 2022, 1:38 am IST

There’s a disquieting view of the country’s education system, as Yuri discovers in preparing for the tuitions that generate his income

Cover photo of 'The Education of Yuri' by Jerry Pinto (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'The Education of Yuri' by Jerry Pinto (Photo by arrangement)

There seems more than a whiff of autobiography to this book because much of the detail in it is deeply authentic.

Yuri Fonseca, orphaned in infancy, grows to teenage under the watchful eye of his uncle, Tio Julio, a lay churchman who lives in a flat within view of the parish school in Mahim, Bombay. Yuri has lived all his life in his uncle’s shadow, imbibing Tio Julio’s values, though vaguely uncomfortable with them. Julio’s choice of integrity and the resulting poverty and trouble, is also hard to accept. He’s a complete misfit at school: besides being “scholarly” and carrying salads in his lunchbox, he’s the “padre ka bachcha”. He doesn’t have a single friend.
In June, 1982 he passes his school exams, and can leave the churchyard — which also happens to be the schoolyard — behind. He’s going to college, where his background doesn’t have to hold him back. And all he wants from college is one friend.

He chooses Elphinstone over St Xavier’s because it’s less threatening, and enrolls for his first year of junior college in science: PCB, for Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. There he learns much other than science. Disturbed by the need to dissect an earthworm, and even more so by the scent of a girl’s hair, he begins to doubt his taste for science.

Others wear Flying Machine jeans, but Yuri makes do with khadi, for Tio Julio will buy nothing else. But he makes a friend, Muzammil, despite the lurking presence in the class of Khamir, the boy who named him the “padre ka bachcha.” And Khamir takes himself off to another college some weeks later, leaving Yuri breathing a little easier.

His awkwardness, a result of his isolation at school, still troubles him. He says strange things without meaning to, sometimes even without knowing he’s doing it: he offends his female dissection partner in his very first session, for instance.
But he learns to cope. Bumbling through college life, he learns much outside the curriculum. He’s introduced to new music: Hotel California and the Eagles, besides David Bowie. He discovers strengths: for instance, public speaking holds no terrors for him. He discovers a taste for Chinua Achebe and for poetry, and befriends a used-book vendor who widens his range of reading. More importantly, he learns to deal with his own lack of money: the best friend he gains in Elphinstone, the friend who follows him from the science stream to arts, Muzammil Merchant, son of a wealthy businessman, and his modern wife helps with that. With Muzammil also, he learns the weight of the loss of a friendship, and the joy of regaining it.

He learns about girls and women, too. His first encounter with a girl, while preparing to dissect an earthworm, leads to a minor disaster but he recovers soon enough with his next dissection partner. A cricket-playing friend, Arif, introduces him to a woman who, for payment, in her turn gives him his first blow job at the Geetoo theatre, its floor sticky with ejaculations and spit.

Unable to bear the burden of guilt from this clandestine bit of sex — thanks to his upbringing with Tio Julio — he confesses to another priest, since he hasn’t the nerve to tell Julio. The strange priest, an old man, corrects him when, in the course of his confession, he uses the phrase ‘blow job’. ‘Oral sex’, says this priest, is the proper phrase to use, and the penitence for the sin is a thousand Hail Marys, of which Yuri manages some two hundred.

Meanwhile, his love life progresses with Bhavna, a college friend. And then there’s confusion, when, under the influence of pot and a bottle of local brew, he sleeps with Bimli, his second partner at dissection, waking up with soiled underwear and no memory of sex...

He learns to deal with grief and desolation. Returning one evening to a silent flat, he finds Tio Julio dead of a heart attack. The support from his friends surprises him, for even Muzammil’s father pitches in to make sure no legal entanglements bar Yuri from his inheritance.

Among the historical events that play a part in the story are the textile workers’ strike, led by Datta Samant, the Bhiwandi riots, and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and all contribute to the education of Yuri. And then there’s Daseshwar, the boy masseur cum sex-worker, whom he encounters near Chowpatty. Yuri sees a story, and persuades Daseshwar to talk to him and be photographed. Debonair accepts Yuri’s story for five hundred rupees, a goodly sum in those days, but when Yuri tries to reform Daseshwar by finding him a job, he runs into disappointment and a deeper understanding of human nature, which, again, equip him better when the editor of Debonair offers him a job and a drink that burns it way down his gullet.

There’s a disquieting view of the country’s education system, as Yuri discovers in preparing for the tuitions that generate his income: “… but the Indian School Certificate Examination seemed to deal with Shakespeare in a way that was brutally factual: ‘What are the four adjectives that Mark Antony uses to describe Brutus?’”

All very good and credible, but there is a rather large fly in the ointment: the conversation. Yuri himself, unusually erudite and sensitive to writing, uses bits of language picked up from Wodehouse, as does Muzammil, and neither swears. But their friends, too, are strangely prudish with their language. They rarely swear, or use Bombay’s slang. The talk has been sanitised: understandable for Yuri himself, but not the others.

Besides, there’s too much crammed into its four hundred or so pages, a profusion of characters and events that make it hard to retain. Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking how much better it could have been.

The Education of Yuri
By Jerry Pinto
Speaker Tiger
pp. 403, Rs 599

Tags: book review, jerry pinto, education of yuri