Month: May 2012

Ravages of insanity amid facade of sanity

This review appeared in The Asian Age on May 23

If a novel is in the making for as long as 25 years, it had better be one hell of a novel. If you are a demanding reader – and by that I mean you are a reader who likes to be challenged on stylistic,  aesthetic, narrative and syntactical levels, hoping that the authors you read force you to rethink and reassess, if not altogether alter, your worldview, your assumptions about life and perceptions of a good story – that novel must have the potential to blow you away. And if you’re not, it must, at least, engage your imagination. Jerry Pinto’s painfully perceptive and enormously assured debut novel, Em and the Big Hoom, which has been in the making for the last 25 years, both challenges (on all of the above levels) and engages you. 

Bristling with warmth and wit, it is a wry and wrenching story of a Goan Roman Catholic family in Mumbai caught in the throes of mental affliction (of a member) that makes everything go awry, askew. A compassionate exploration into the ravages of insanity 

(and the facades of sanity we all are wont to keep up), Em and the Big Hoom aches with a deep, dark sorrow (that caring for a dysfunctional family member brings), but is exhilaratingly alluring. 

Ah! the indomitable pain of dealing with the derangement of someone as precious as your own mother! It’s a pain that tends to shoot through your entire being every now and  then even as you see her sinking into the depths of depression, hovering on the peripheries of reason, teetering on the edge of insanity, drifting in, drifting out! The manic melancholy of that monumental pain perforates the fabric of your family. The entire household begins to revolve around the terrible, tragic sickness of the mind of a parent, who keeps hurtling down a path much complex, less understood, till she hits the rock bottom.

There is no getting past that pain, no way of overcoming it. You could only empathise, make attempts to understand. Pinto’s narrator does exactly that. The novel, a poignant portrait of a mother as a madwoman, is about making sense of madness (and mortality?) that throws a family’s world out of gear, leaving it grappling with the insurmountable grief it engenders: “Mad is an everyday, ordinary word. It is compact. It fits into songs… It can be everything you choose it to be: a mad whirl, a mad idea, a mad March day, a mad heiress, a mad mad mad mad world, a mad passion, a mad hatter, a mad dog. But it is different when you have a mad mother. Then the word wakes up from time to time and 
blinks at you, eyes of fire.”

It is the story of Imelda and Augustine, Em and the Big Hoom respectively, their adolescent son, the narrator Roger Mendes (Pinto’s own alter ego), and daughter Susan. Through fragments of conversations with Em, her letters and recollections, the narrator, helped in the endeavour by his sibling, pieces together the “jigsaw puzzle” of his mother’s madness: “There was no going in. And there was no going away.”

When the novel opens, we meet Em, once a beautiful woman with a lovely singing voice, in ward 33 (psychiatric) of Sir J.J. Hospital. Slowly, we become privy to the family interaction, Em’s frequent ramblings that gradually acquire a life of their own, her “free associating, gliding through language”: “Conversations with Em could be like wandering in a town you had never seen before, where every path you took might change course midway and take you with it. You had to keep finding your way back to the main street in order to get anywhere.”

And this is precisely the narrator does throughout the novel, keeping an ear out to his mother’s tales, as she changes gears between being cheerful and cantankerous, benevolent and malevolent, garrulous and silent. Why was she at the J.J. Hospital? She ascribes it to “a tap somewhere” that opened when the narrator was born, and the black drip filled her up. This had made her own mind inaccessible to her. And to her loved ones: “There was no way into my mother’s head.” There is no way to understand why she keeps hankering for “Depsonil or death or a beedi”.

Whichever way you look at her, Em is tremendously endearing. A “rough, rude, roistering” woman, she leaps at you with her charm, her character, till you are fully wrapped in her wild, wayward chatter, full of wit and wisdom. Wisdom, even though she’s mad. The Big Hoom is remote, distant, stoic. He remains a mere presence and less of a participant in the family affairs, but his fortitude makes you respect him, understand him. Roger and Susan, more often than not, keep their life in abeyance as they take on the role of caregivers. You feel sorry and sad for them as their idea of home gets scarred. Roger writes: “Home was where others had to gather grace. Home was what I wanted to flee. Home was a blood-stained bathroom which, when it was scraped down for repainting, revealed an old suicide note, scrawled in pencil.”

Em and the Big Hoom is an overwhelming achievement. The narrator, who seems to be at once both reliable and unreliable (though you are made to feel the latter is more true), doesn’t indulge in self-pity as he threads bare, with tremendous empathy, the imperfections and inadequacies, the ailments and eccentricities of his family. The narrative, shorn of unnecessary embellishments (no varnishes for verisimilitude; it’s a Mumbai novel and yet Pinto doesn’t delve into the details that other writers would find irresistible), singes with a pain of its own. The prose, at once elegiac and ecstatic, has its own delights as Pinto smears its fragments with poetic feel and fragrance.

The plot trudges swiftly at a well-structured pace, moving back and forth in time, unfolding a world which is sad and sepulchral, but keeps you captivated. At a micro level, Pinto’s debut may be the story of a family dealing with a cruel twist of fate, but, in a larger sense, it is hard not to see it as a meditation on madness in general: “The mad in India are not the mentally ill, they are, simply, mad. They have no other identity.”

At some point in the novel, the narrator wonders: “What is a cure when you’re dealing with the human mind? What is normal?” Like Roger, this is the question – larger and with a universal resonance – that stays with you.

Deeply moving, deliciously engrossing, Em and the Big Hoom is a joyous read that leaves you chuckling and sad, at once. It is a humdinger of a novel that is haunting in its beauty, in its evocation of a family dealing with mental degradation and loss. Pinto is a brilliant storyteller, rare among the current crop of writers, and it will be interesting to see his forthcoming forays in the fictional terrain.

Muscular story of a wrestler & courtesan

This review appeared in the Asian Age on April 11

The hands of two wrestlers frozen in a near clasp, one (of the vanquished?) buried in sand, the other (of the victor?) nestled above it, amidst a carnival of soil and dust. The wrinkled hand on top, half-hidden, half-visible, tells you the wrestler isn’t young any more.  If you were to judge a book by its cover, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s third novel Between Clay and Dust, after the Kafkaesque Salar Jang’s Passion and the Austenesque The Story of a Widow, is tantalising enough to command a read.

Between Clay and Dust, one of the first three books to be published by David Davidar’s
Aleph Book Company (Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto and The Taliban Cricket Club

by Timeri N. Murari are the other two), is a short, but muscular and moving story of Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan, a wrestler and a courtesan, a pahalwan and a kothewali, who have left their eras of eminence behind and are entering the twilight of their years. But, instead of choosing to go gently into the good night, they burn and rave, in their own subdued and quiet ways, at what seems to be the beginning of the end of their heydays.

In keeping with the book’s overarching theme, the story begins with ruin. In detailing the ruination of the “Inner City” in a chapter titled exactly that, Farooqi is subtle and sparse. The opening chapter, like the 41 others that follow, is short but admirably adequate. These chapters are like the strings of a musical instrument; together they weave melancholic melody out of the similar vicissitudes of its two key characters and the similar destinies that await them. The novel underlines that fame and fortune and life’s little tragedies and triumphs are but transient, and all of us have to return to the dust eventually.

The novel dwells on two great souls, whose spirits remain indefatigable to the end, and who, caught in the inexorable march of time and the strange changes it engenders, remain resolute in their days of reckoning, steadfast even if faced with greatest of challenges in the fleet of months preceding their retirement.

But let’s talk about the opening riff first. We are initiated into the Inner City, which has been left “unscathed” by the “ravaging winds of Partition: “The turmoil that had seared the fibre of men and gored their souls hadn’t touched this quiet habitation.” But the cleaving of the subcontinent had caused a “slow disintegration of values”. Devoid of its old inhabitants, the Inner City lies in a state of utter abandonment. But its worn stones “still intoned past splendour in broken whispers”.

Part of the Inner City’s past splendour were Ustad Ramzi and Gohar Jan. Ustad Ramzi, the custodian of a wrestler’s akhara, once held the highest wrestling title in the land, Ustad-e-Zaman. The title lay at the root of a long struggle between Ramzi’s clan and its rival; while the former had taken pains to defend it, the latter left no opportunity to snatch it away. But Ustad Ramzi’s world, as well as that of his rival, had been irreversibly shaken with the abolition of princely states whose rajas and nawabs had patronised and promoted the wrestling arts. Ramzi’s younger brother, Tamami, who aspires to the coveted title, has little luck with winning the consent of his elder who views the young wrestler as an
unworthy heir. Tamami once accepts a challenge for a bout with rival clan’s Imama and loses it. But to acquire the title of Ustad-e-Zaman, Imama must fight with Ustad Ramzi.

But before that happens he meets an unexpected end on the akhara at Tamami’s hands who gets violent while fighting yet another bout with him. Soon after, Ustad Ramzi disowns his sibling, who can’t handle his “humiliation” and takes to drugs. Ustad Ramzi could save his brother from going downhill. But he remains puffed up with pride even as his brother fights his battles alone, hoping that some day

his elder brother would forgive him. But Ustad Ramzi remains a prisoner to his own sense of propriety and pride.

When Tamami is gone, Ustad Ramzi, on a day of silent reckoning, wonders about the life he had given up and how “one association had brought to naught all his probity and care in the calibration of human relationships”. Gohar Jan, the intriguing courtesan, has an unlikely admirer in Ustad Ramzi, who has been so loyal to his field of activity (wrestling) he chose to stay celibate. Ustad Ramzi takes a shine to Gohar Jan’s raga recitals and frequents her mehfils. While it is his love for music that brings Ustad Ramzi to her kotha regularly, we discover towards the end that Gohar Jan looked upon Ustad Ramzi as an “anchor”.

Between Clay and Dust is a tale that wrestles with the themes of rectitude and retribution, pride and redemption, grief and guilt, love and loss. It is about the commotion of souls and the moral and emotional wherewithals that nobler souls among us possess to withstand time’s ravages, leaving behind robust and sturdy foootprints on its sands.