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
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.