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.


Nikita Banerjee Bhagat said...

Hello Manasi! My first visit here and I absolutely loved the review. Beautifully done.

Unicorn said...

The review is amazing. How can I get in touch with you ?

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