Review: Em and the Big Hoom

Their books page isn’t officially my domain until June, but I’ve extended a tentacle in its direction this week. Voila, the first piece I’ve written for DNA’s The Mag.

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I can’t seem to find the link on the site or open the e-paper at the moment. When I have luck with either one of these ventures, I’ll update this post. More likely, I’ll put up the text of the review here tomorrow.

UPDATE: Found the e-paper link.

UPDATE: Thanks to Yayaati Joshi for the proper link to the review. I must admit, the e-paper is much better looking (one day, some day, an Indian newspaper will have a clean, easy-on-the-eye design template that will allow for ads in a way that the visitor doesn’t feel like they’ve been momentarily plunged into A Clockwork Orange). So here’s the text of my review of Em and the Big Hoom:

Em And The Big Hoom
Author: Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Aleph
Pages: 235
Price: Rs495

In the old myths, even the bravest of brave men cower before the mad woman. Greek mythology had maenads, raving women who tore animals to pieces and devoured their raw flesh. They have a habit of killing men. For example, maenads ripped the Greek bard Orpheus to shreds, leaving only his head and lyre intact. In Hindu mythology, there’s Kali who is virtually unstoppable when she goes on her furious rampage. The only one who can make her pause is Shiva, and that too by lying prostrate at Kali’s feet. He doesn’t get into a confrontation with her. He doesn’t try to tame her. He simply, calmly, presents himself as a bulwark against Kali’s madness. In a sense, Shiva is the Big Hoom to Kali’s Em.

Em And The Big Hoom is the latest addition to a long-standing tradition of storytelling: the tale of the mad woman. Her past activities in the canon of English literature have included burning the house down (Jane Eyre), floating not-so-merrily down a stream (Hamlet) and getting into a staring contest with the wallpaper (‘The Yellow Wallpaper’). Em, in comparison, is almost domestic. She smokes beedis, keeps her family on their toes, sears her son’s mind and regularly tries to kill herself.

Jerry Pinto’s first novel is about one woman’s madness, and how it is an acidic glue that scars her family, but also holds it together. It begins with Em in a psychiatric ward, recovering from a failed suicide attempt, but the Mendes family’s story begins like a sweet romantic comedy of 1970s’ Bollywood. Imelda and Augustine meet in an office. He courts her. They get married and have two children, a daughter named Susan and a son, the narrator of the novel. Then, after the birth of her son, Em discovers depression.

It’s as though “someone turned on a tap,” says Em to her son. “At first, it was only a drip, a black drip, and I felt it as sadness. … It’s like oil. Like molasses, slow at first. Then one morning I woke up and it was flowing free and fast. I thought I would drown in it.” Em reacted by throwing herself in front of a bus. It was the first of many attempts to kill herself. They would all be violent, desperate and shocking because the Em that emerges from her son’s storytelling is — despite her death wish — as full of life as a Mumbai local during rush hour. She writes, she reminisces, she dreams, she embarrasses her children, she laughs, she smokes beedis; and yet, simmering inside her is a terrible, corrosive madness. That’s what makes her hear messages from the fan, eat Iodex, slump into nightmarish depression and slice her wrists.

Pinto has made no secret of the fact that Em And The Big Hoom is based on his own life with his mother, Imelda Philomena Perpetua Pinto, nee Tellis (or Meem, as he calls her in the dedication). The autobiographical twist is a recurrent feature in stories starring mad women. Sylvia Plath wrote about her own experiences in The Bell Jar. Charlotte Bronte is believed to have based her depiction of Bertha Rochester on her alcoholic, depressive brother Branwell who had to be confined in a room because he was considered dangerous. Knowing that the fiction is based on real life often makes a story more poignant. It draws the reader in and makes the slippery, unpredictable twists more credible. Perhaps the act of trying to extract fiction from reality is also enabling for the writer. Pinto says he spent decades trying to write this book and it is peppered with powerfully-evocative passages like this one that suggest it was time well spent: “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. Then it vanishes, and you are outside the dark tower again.”

Although it’s hard to believe anyone could reduce Pinto to exclamations the way Em does, those who have heard Pinto speak will have no trouble imagining him as the raconteur, telling the story of Em And The Big Hoom to a rapt audience; a bit like Em on the balcony of the Mendes’s Mahim flat. For all the pain and despair in Em’s life, there’s an effervescence in the Mendes. They don’t lose sight of the moments of absurdity that make a situation bizarre or amusing. They don’t miss the opportunity to crack a joke. It makes moments like the one in which Susan and the narrator see scarring on Em’s head and realise she was given electric shocks that much darker and more painful.

Pinto’s prose quicksilvers its way through time and emotions, slipping in wit and pulling out despair elegantly. The novel is neatly structured, punctuated by little detours that help flesh out the plot and its players, and holds the reader’s attention. As Em wrestles with her madness, her son pieces together their family’s story. It has a cast of delightful characters, like Em’s mother who speaks a language of incomplete sentences and communicative gestures. How can you not be charmed by a character who, when meeting her prospective son in-law, says, “What’s your this-thing?” and expects to be understood? Or resist that feeling of warm fuzziness while reading about the Big Hoom’s engagement ring. “I liked it,” he tells her when she points out it’s an ugly ring. “It came from you,” he explains.

As Pinto writes about The Big Hoom, whose story “has the mythic resonance of India in it”, and Em as a working girl who would give all her salary to her parents, an evocative collage comes together of a Goan family putting its roots down in Mumbai and striving to be more than “the ABC professions” — ayahs, butlers, cooks. It’s rich with detail — like how Em would put chocolate wrappers in books as remembrance of the candy she’d eaten — and they serve to make Em And The Big Hoom read like a love letter to a past that has slipped out of reach and yet is too close to the present to be historical.

Every one of Pinto’s characters feels alive and real. You can almost hear Pinto’s characters chattering away as you read Em And The Big Hoom. The loudest and most riveting of them is Em, the mad woman of Mahim.

Em And The Big Hoom is also a superbly-produced book and Aleph Book Company deserves applause for putting so much effort into the book’s design. From the cover, to the creeping illustrations at the start of each chapter, the pages whose edges are indigo-stained and story on them, the book is a beautiful read.

 

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