Books This Week

In this week’s Books page, we had a review of Rahul Bhatt and S. Hussain Zaidi’s Headley and I, written by Little Yadav, one of DNA‘s crime beat journalists. It’s one thing when a book written by a friend lands up on your desk. It’s another thing entirely when the book that lands on your table is written by someone you’re legally obliged to stand by in sickness and in health. Obviously I wouldn’t review Anuvab Pal‘s new book, Chaos Theory. But if you want to know a little bit about the book and Pal, here’s an interview.

Not that I knew this would be quite so timely as it ended up to be, but most of the books page was devoted to some of the memorable and strong women characters we saw in fiction this year. Voila the list.

Ladies’ Special


Screen Shot 2012-12-30 at 9.45.24 AM
Illustration by Sudhir Shetty

Syamamma from Gogu Shyamala’s Father May Be An Elephant, And Mother May Only Be A Small Basket

Dalit feminist and Telengana activist Gogu Shyamala’s short stories were all poignant and memorable, but one character stood out: Syamamma. Born into a Dalit family in rural India, Syamamma’s life is marked by challenges, not the least of which is the practice of making Dalit girls “joginis” (which means she’s available for sexual exploitation by all the upper caste men in the village). The short story “Raw Wound”, based on Shyamala’s own life, is about how Syamamma escapes this fate. She, like Shyamala, is a champion. Insert roaring applause here.

Mausiji from Ambai’s Fish In A Dwindling Lake

Most of us wouldn’t think getting an auto outside Bandra station could be fashioned into a remarkable story, but that’s because most of us aren’t Ambai. “Journey 7” is about an older woman, Mausiji, helping a young wife named Rupmati and her brood of children negotiate their way through Bandra station. Mausiji is such a refreshing alternative to the scheming, sniping and insecure older women we usually see in popular culture. Plus, as far as we are concerned, anyone who helps another get an auto is a hero who deserves all the adulation in the world.

Rabi from Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home

She weeps, she’s melodramatic and for much of the novel, she’s worried about getting her daughter married. This doesn’t sound like the formula of a strong woman character, but in the way Rabi carefully carves out an independent identity in the intensely-conservative Hausa society, she’s positively heroic. When Rabi is thrown out of her marital home (with her children), she sniffs and sobs but she also wastes no time in setting up a business of her own. Rabi’s story would probably feel far closer to many an Indian woman’s reality than the saas-bahu serials on television.

Sukhvinder from JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

She’s hairy, dyslexic, awkward and she cuts herself. Basically, Sukhvinder in The Casual Vacancy is the kid in school that no one speaks to because it’s just more entertaining to make fun of them. Although she shows up late in the novel, Sukhvinder is ultimately one of the few people in Rowling’s Pagford who warms your heart. She’s doesn’t move past her insecurities magically, but is strong enough to not lose sight of what she believes is right. In the end, when she organises the funeral for Krystal, the terribly-misunderstood heroine (of sorts) of The Casual Vacancy, Sukhvinder proves she has more integrity than almost anyone else in the novel. Brava!

Captain Naphi from China Mieville’s Railsea

One of her arms is a whirring mechanical contraption and all of her is geared to hunting a massive albino “moldywarpe” (a giant mole). This may sound a bit ridiculous without context but in Railsea, a reimagining of Moby Dick, Captain Naphi is Mieville’s version of Captain Ahab and a fascinating character at that. Her determination to find the mole is fearsome. Her crew is both petrified and in absolute awe of her. You’d think a woman without all her limbs would seem handicapped, but not Naphi. It’s not often that a character is both menacing as well as reassuring – Naphi manages this balance and is someone no one would mess with. This is a woman we want by our side.

Amy from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Move over Hannibal Lecter. A man eating our liver sounds far less scary than the psychopathic Amy Elliott Dunne whose ability to plot and pre-empt is positively horrifying. After all, with Lecter all you have to fear is death. Amy doesn’t let you off so easily. Dauntingly intelligent and cold-blooded, she will make her victim – her husband – survive and suffer. Gone Girl isn’t really a horror story. It’s a novel about marriage and Amy is a chilling personification of that old saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Or in Amy’s case, a woman bored. Considering the horrible crimes against women being reported these days, there’s a politically incorrect side of us that takes great pleasure in these criminal husbands being saddled with a wife like Amy.

Em from Jerry Pinto’s Em And The Big Hoom

From the very first moment that you meet Em, you fall in love with her. She is completely mad, which means she says delightful and often inappropriate things with glorious charm. It also means that she tries to kill herself, hurts those around her and is crucified by depression. Yet, even when she’s at her worst, when she’s curled into a miserable knot of delusions and suicidal urges, Em’s strength is remarkable. Her desperate urge to kill herself is matched only by her intense joie de vivre. Heady, heartbreaking and utterly lovable.

Mariamma from Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People

It was the year of mad mothers, and Mariamma, who talks to walls and regularly douses her alcoholic husband in order to wake him up, matches Em in both lunacy as well as charm. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is actually a father’s quest to unravel the mystery of his son’s suicide, but Mariamma is the parent who wins your heart. Haunted by the past, miserable in her present and yet full of humour, Mariamma’s determination to not let her difficult circumstances overwhelm her is fantastic. From taking advantage of the competition between local churches, using economic theory to discipline her son and thwacking a man who “eve-teases” a young woman, Mariamma is amazing.


Jerry Pinto at Crossword/ 16.07.12

I loved Jerry Pinto’s debut novel, Em and the Big Hoom and ever since I read it, I’ve wanted to go for one of Jerry’s readings of the book because I really wanted to hear how the story sounded in his voice and with his intonations. I’ve managed to miss every single reading Jerry’s done in Mumbai. Yesterday, I finally bucked the trend and at 7pm, I was at the right place at the right time for a reading of Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto.

For those who haven’t heard Jerry in person, he talks a lot and speaks very, very fast. Also, if there’s a tangent to go off on, Jerry will pounce on it like Tarzan does a vine. Which is why frequently the question (Saloni Meghani, Features Editor of Mumbai Mirror, had the happy task of trying to bring Jerry back to somewhere close to the starting point of his own ramble) receded in the distance as Jerry talked and talked and talked. Then suddenly Jerry would turn to Meghani and ask, “What was the question?”

So what you will see below is very disjointed and it doesn’t seem like all these sentences and ideas could possibly add up, and chances are, they don’t unless you have someone with Jerry’s hyper-energy connecting them.

I might have had a chance getting down most of what Jerry said yesterday if my two pens hadn’t died on me (weep). Instead, I had to rely on my phone, which has — horror of horrors — a touch screen. This meant the following:
– typos
– auto correction hell
– Jerry pointing me out as one of today’s “texto ergo sum” generation.

On the plus side, it seems I look young enough to belong to the barely-in-my-20s generation, to Jerry at the very least. Let us leave out of consideration the fact that his power is something like -13 in one eye and -9 in the other.

Anyway, so before I write down what Pinto quotations I managed to transcribe, a few things:

1. Jerry  is 46 years old. “I know, I don’t look it.” And yes, Jerry is short for Geronimo. Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to ask him if Freida Pinto’s definition of Pinto is accurate.

2. He read out a passage that you can hear him read on Youtube, in which Em and her son are at a hospital, waiting to get some tests done. If you can hear Jerry read from the book live, I recommend you do. It will probably sound different from how you heard it in your head, but Jerry’s quite fantastic when he’s playing himself.

3. Poet, critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote has a book in which he notes down phrases that are, according to Jerry, “diamonds”.  From time to time, Hoskote returns to this book, flips through its pages, and then, from these seemingly-random but beautiful phrases, entire poems spring forth, “like Athena sprouting fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus.”

4. When he was asked about the variety of his writing, Jerry likened him writing to entering a large room that has high ceilings and many, many windows. Each window is a genre. The question is, “Which window am I going to open today?”

5. According to Pinto, the only people who need to know if a book is fiction or non-fiction are librarians, the police and journalists.

6. The word of the moment for Jerry seems to be dutty, i.e. ‘dirty’, sprinkled with local masala and pronounced with colloquial gusto. It was peppered all over his conversation yesterday, often because he was admonishing himself by saying, “You dutty boy” or because he was describing writing — his own, mostly — as dutty.

Here beginneth the spoutings of Jerry Pinto, the author of Mahim.

(On editing the original manuscript and cutting out characters to focus on the four-member Mendes family) I killed them because they were horrible. They were monster children.  I would not release them into the world.

You’re killing something and you see a single phrase that you want to rescue. (This was when he told us about Hoskote’s book of phrases and the Athena-like poems he can create from them.) I want that to happen to me. But it never does. I have to lose the whole thing.

Now you’re looking at the mangoes of your writing.

One of the terrors of finishing the book was, what is the connect with anyone else? How does this book break out of its specificity?

If you have a writer in the family, pachhtao. They are looking at you as raw material 40 per cent of the time. … We’re just looking at you and sucking out your experiences and thoughts and everything. The good thing is that you could be immortal.

(On how people never feel as though they’ve been accurately represented in a story.) We carry around an image of ourselves, nicely photoshopped by hope and imagination.

Each word that you pin down to the page limits the next word. The next word that you put down [demands you complete a sentence and that means an idea, which is the beginning of a story that must be carried out till the end]… It’s the smell of death.

I actually have a lot of fun writing. … I enjoy even the sex work writing that I do. [Sex work writing = articles written for the cheque. This was followed by a fabulous impersonation of a disgruntled prostitute-journalist haggling for cheque after having submitted an article.]

Somethings come from the top of the head. Some come from somewhere lower, somewhere reptilian. Then there’s what comes from the intersection of nerve and gut and spine and sinew. That where this book [Em and the Big Hoom] came from.

If you have a novel inside you and you haven’t written it or you’re not writing it, well, too bad. Because there are enough novels in the universe. The only reason to write a book is that you want to write it. There is no imperative to write from the universe. Don’t expect people to draw it out of you.

The act of writing, it’s the act of hoping for a future. All writing is an act of huge optimism and huge faith.

You begin by thinking your interests are wide-ranging, that you’re a polymath, a renaissance man… but what you’re actually interested in is yourself.

If you’re walking down a road and you meet a story that is well-dressed, then you should know it is fiction. Reality is always falling apart. It is messy.

We all walk around with a certain degree of fraudulence. … Which is the authentic Jerry? … Actually, what is real is that which exists in the shifting intersections of all these Jerrys.

[While talking about different identities and then the act of writing.] I know this sounds hopelessly like Kahlil Gibran.

I’m tangential and I go where the story takes me.

Craft is toilet training your idea. … Craft is simply taking your manuscript in hand and saying, ‘We’re going on a long walk together.’

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.


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.