20 August 2012

Em and the Big Hoom

This review was first published in The Asian Review of Books.

Em is Imelda—brilliant, vivacious, funny, a gifted writer, a spirited human being. The Big Hoom is Augustine—stable, sensible, a large, looming presence, a much-needed anchor. Susan, their daughter, is the graceful and dependable offspring. Their son, unnamed, is the obsessive scribe of the family, the ardent, troubled historian. The story of their lives, which are cloistered—lovingly, brokenly—in a little 1BHK (a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen flat) in Mahim, Mumbai, is Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. Em is no longer “whole”: her doctors diagnose her as bipolar, manic depressive, neurotic; Em calls herself mad; the city of Mumbai dubs her “mental”. And so the story begins to unravel, seam by seam.

But Em was once Beloved and The Big Hoom was Angel Ears. Within the expanse of these former sobriquets, a twelve-year courtship is described: fleeting hours spent wandering through bookstores, drinking copious amounts of tea, and holding hands. She calls him Booming Voice and Mambo and Augie March and Limb of Satan. But she, for the most part, is Beloved. Imelda of the Beloved years is a tender-footed ingénue who earns more than Angel Ears and still gives her earnings to her mother (until she has to give them to her husband); she writes detailed, delightful notes in her diary about the wooing period and has the astonishing forethought to sign a contract with her fiancé declaring that her body is hers to do with as she will. Beloved is the sort of woman with whom it is difficult not to suddenly find yourself in love.

And Em, too, at some moments, will have you endlessly charmed. No subject is taboo for Em. She tells her children that she never wanted them; at the same time, she pierces them with such convulsive fits of affection that the holes she puts in their hearts are routinely refilled. She wants to know about their sex lives and wants to tell them about hers. She fogs the house with the cheap beedis she smokes, swears incessantly, parleys with sparkling wit, and writes beautifully. But when Em is clouded with the sorrow that so ravages her, she wants to kill herself. And she attempts very, very often. What little room is left in the 1BHK seems permanently filled with the blood that seeps out of Em’s slit wrists.

Pinto writes: “Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be.” The book is so populated with descriptions of Em’s condition that it almost reads like a poetic treatise on the subject of madness. Through Pinto’s elaborate and frequent metaphors, madness becomes a tower, a prison, quicksand, an Arctic floe; it is likened to winter and nighttime and despair and all things dark; analogies are drawn repeatedly to show how it feels to be on the outside, looking in, and yet not so far outside that it is impossible to fall in. More instances and fewer metaphors might have served the book better.

Em’s mother who speaks in elisions and The Big Hoom who rarely speaks unless absolutely necessary leave so many things unsaid that Em, with her wonderment and honesty and bursts of clarity, frequently seems to be the only one who truly engages with the outside world. The Mendeses are a family that long to be “a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother.” They are “messed up by Reader’s Digest standards”—not the sort of “heart-rending story you can read on your summer vacation.” But this is also the family that will not send Em into a home for people like herself; her pain is theirs as she herself is. The brief forays into the mental health care institutions of India are some of the most disturbing sections of the book.

There are no touching little vignettes of the city of extremes, the land of contradictions, maximum city, dream factory, local trains, chawls, smells, crowds, squalor, poverty, slums. But there are moments—like when the municipal corporation digs up the streets outside the 1BHK and forgets to close them up again, leading Em to a paranoia about graves outside her house—when Mumbai emerges within the narrative, casually, almost accidentally. That the story is set in Mumbai is clear from the details (Coke floats, Amitabh movies, Brijwasi Sweets) but it could just as well have been set elsewhere.

The story is told by the son, who seems to have decided that if he must live with his mother, he must understand her. He must trawl her past, scrutinise her childhood—as a wandering migrant from Burma, a family’s sole wage-earner, a little girl who longed to go to college but became a stenographer instead—and chart the love that even now envelops Em and The Big Hoom into a single unit. For this purpose, he reads her well-documented life with an almost feverish devotion and quizzes her, demanding details that she cannot always remember, so that he can piece the puzzle together into the whole that Em does not seem to be. “And through all this, I told myself, and with all this, I told myself, I'll try and understand her. I'll try and figure out how this happened to my mother, once a beautiful woman with a lovely singing voice, and—yes—how this happened to my father, a man with a future who had given it all up to make sure the present was manageable. For her. For us.”

This is a small and beautiful book, and one of the many things that makes it beautiful is its production quality: a brilliant cover design, stark end paper, a striking layout, inky edges, stunning binding. Pinto’s writing has startling sweetness; it is not overwrought with emotion or tragedy. Rather, it glides into the greyness of tragicomedy, resorting as often to mirth as to distress and as often to love as to anger. The narrator’s voice has the sort of lingering pathos and wisdom that is seen in youth weighed by adult responsibility—its innocence, its resignation, its precarious hopefulness, its hint of laughter. It is the voice of a boy and his sister, both in complete awe of their father and in thrall to their exceptional mother, who must find a way to let them both go just a little bit in order to steady their beating hearts.

01 August 2012

Bring Up the Bodies

A shorter version of this review first appeared in Mint Lounge. I reviewed Wolf Hall, the first book in Hilary Mantel's trilogy, earlier on this blog.
Note: Bring Up the Bodies has just been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall stops: at Wolf Hall, the estate of the Seymour family, where King Henry VIII is enraptured by young Jane Seymour, and the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, who, in Wolf Hall, engineered England’s breakaway from Rome to secure the king a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, must now rid the king of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, son of a Putney blacksmith, is far from his humble origins – he is now Master of the Rolls, Chief Minister, Master of the Jewels, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Clerk of the Hanaper, and Master Secretary to the King. He is the man you will go to when you need things to be done – and in the court of Henry VIII, you will often need things to be done.

It is 1535 and Cromwell has broken England free of the Pope. He has masterminded the English Reformation, instituted the distinctly Protestant Church of England, and has had the Catholic Church discredited. He has surveyed the country, conducted its first census, and investigated the corruption of the monastic order. Papists, including the sainted Thomas More and John Fisher, have been beheaded and new acts of succession and supremacy have been passed in parliament. Without Rome’s support, the country teeters dangerously between its two closest allies, France and Spain. England has no male heir and the Plantagenets are eyeing the throne. At home, the threat of civil war hovers; from overseas, the bull of excommunication. But none of these things matter as much as the fact that Henry is already bored of his new wife.

Once more unto the breach, then: the second marriage must be annulled and a new one must be forged. But why should the king – or any man – prefer dull Jane Seymour to remarkable Anne Boleyn? Jane is “a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise,” while Anne is “an elegant woman, with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant.” Jane’s insipid innocence, which constantly borders on stupidity, is in stark contrast to Anne’s glittering brilliance, her sharpness, her sense of humour, her mental agility, her shrewd stateswomanship. No one, not even Jane’s brothers and father, can comprehend the king’s attraction to this girl who is “as much use as a blancmange.” Anne’s volatility “was what fascinated the king, to find someone so different from those soft, kind blondes who drift through men’s lives and leave not a mark behind.” But it is just such a blonde that the king has now decided that he desires.

Anne and Cromwell linger over the king like a pair of daggers poised toward each other, blurring into likeness. Both are ambitious, quick-witted, and cunning; they are crafty administrators, sophisticated and prescient; they evince surprising warmth of spirit; in conversation, they are incessantly funny; and they are both driven, in their own ways, by a pervasive love for the king. It is no wonder, then, that they are bent upon destroying each other. When Cromwell reflects upon Anne, he could just as well be describing himself: “He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated […] He wonders what it would take to make her panic.” In another instance: “She will have to ask herself what Jane can give the king, that at present he lacks. She will have to think it through. And it is always a pleasure to see Anne thinking.” They regard each other with reluctant esteem, acutely aware that only one of them will survive the king’s new fancy. It is Anne who must finally concede her hand. She fights for Henry, but Cromwell fights harder, and better, and Anne finds herself facing charges of adultery, incest, and treason.

Mantel’s Cromwell is not the Lutheran that history would have us believe. He is a rationalist, a man who would have done well in the Enlightenment. He leans, decidedly, away from the papists, but mostly because it seems a convenient position, considering the many political and economic reforms he has in mind for England. He is most concerned with Henry’s purse strings and will not let the exchequer go to Rome. He has read Machiavelli and found him trite. He is a man of unwavering loyalty. He will avenge, however he can, the death of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey; and no matter how grim circumstances turn, he will stay true to his friend, Thomas Wyatt. Over and above everything else, he will serve the king.

Five young men are handpicked by Cromwell for the charge of adultery, four of whom have been unkind to the memory of the late Cardinal (the fifth is chosen for no reason other than that he is foolish and arrogant). In synthesising Henry’s divorce, Cromwell will extract revenge. These men are guilty, he reasons, just not guilty as charged. The four interrogation scenes are laid out like the four paws of a beast. These men are rich and corrupt and cruel, and Cromwell has nothing but contempt for them. The barbarous machinations of those with power and the careless freedom of the elite are richly and articulately debated in Cromwell’s questionings (it would seem that he would have done well in the Occupy movement as well). But the irony – which will strike us only later, for we have come to love Cromwell too well by now – is that Cromwell, too, in his position as vigilante, has come to abuse his powers with the presumption of a man who has risen above his own. Really, the question we are left with is this: can power ever not be abused?

There is no way we can forget our knowledge of what comes next; Anne Boleyn must die, and Jane Seymour must become queen. We cannot un-know these facts. And yet, Mantel endows popular history with such trepidation and suspense that our breath is bated. Our wondering is futile, and yet we wonder, for Mantel will not stop laying her traps. We pray, foolishly, that Anne will be acquitted, just as we will pray, when the third installment of the trilogy comes, that Cromwell will weather Henry’s fleeting attention span.

Cromwell is given to peculiar flights of imagination. In his head, he conducts conversations with dead men, organises grotesque dinner parties at which the heads of the Boleyns are served for the main course, and constantly writes a book on how to manage the king. Cromwell’s dealings with women – especially the women of Henry’s life – are the sharpest, wittiest sections of the two books. The conversations are awash with humour and ingenuity of wordplay. Mantel’s writing – aside from being clever and interesting and wicked and beautiful – is also hilarious. Her priceless sense of humour is most persuasively seen in her dialogue, particularly when it is Cromwell who speaks.

Mantel will not let your brain rest for a single moment. Her ambiguous pronouns, her use of the present tense, and her disconcerting refusal to explain herself will keep you on your toes; you must be diligent, for everything that transpires is of consequence. She will not let your attention waver, as Henry’s often does; she will collar you uncomfortably and hold you to your seat as Cromwell does to his detainees; she will draw you in and then, like Anne Boleyn, she will tease you for being drawn. All the while, she maintain such calm and elegance and mastery over her craft that you will be loath to accuse her, as Eustache Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, accuses Cromwell: “You are laughing behind your hand!”