|Though it’s far from being a soggy saga, the author has triumphed in sketching convincing characters
I sometimes wonder why, given all that we see or read about, the word “family” continues to have a cosy sound. For many people, the family is as cosy as the stranglehold of an octopus. Families have been dysfunctional ever since Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve. But love, hate, fear, ambivalence, all form a bonding we can rarely escape.
Jerry Pinto’s first novel, Em and the big Hoom (Aleph Books, 2012) explores the relationship between a mentally unstable mother, (variously diagnosed as schizophrenic, manic depressive, given to attempts to commit suicide), her two young children and their father.
It’s tricky material to handle: the book is shot through with almost unbearable pain, but it’s far from being a soggy saga. It’s an extraordinary achievement, flawlessly written, variously textured, and full of convincing characters who don’t fit stereotypes about Catholics/suffering women/domineering men.
Em, the mother, sensitive, cultured, flamboyant, doesn’t evade the word ‘mad,’ nor do the children, though other children jeer at them. They want to know what she was like when she was “whole.” How did she meet their father?
What jobs did she do? The narration moves with the questions, the answers she gives or chooses not to give, her endless cups of tea, the beedis she smokes, and her volatile moods. In a heartbreaking sentence which “sums up” the book, the narrator says, “She went up. She came down. She went up again. We snatched at her during the intervals.”
But again, the narrator can be ironic at his own expense: “Once, in a timid attempt to help, I took her hand in mine and sat with her. My motives were mixed. I wanted to help but I had also written the stage directions for myself: ‘Enter son, stage left. He looks at her for a moment and then goes and sits by her side. He takes her hand in his and offers her what consolation he can.”
There are scenes of pure comedy. Before Em and Augustine are married, “two senior women, dressed in silk and magnificent Sunday hats” presented themselves at Augustine’s office. He had no idea who they were.
One of the ladies said, “We are not in the habit of introducing ourselves…I suggest you ask Mr Andrade who works here with you to introduce us.” They have come to make sure Augustine is the right kind of man for Em, and to confess their own reduced circumstances: “Our circumstances are not what they once were,” says the elder woman. “Bertha was driven from her home in Burma by Herr Hitler. Very little was left.”
“Our chemist shops,” Bertha adds. “And the this-thing.” “Teak plantation,” says Louisa. “She means the teak plantation.” “That’s what I was this-thing,” says Bertha. Louisa ignores her. “I see,” says Augustine, although he doesn’t. He hasn’t yet learnt his future mother-in-law’s conversational style.”
Dom Moraes wrote an account of his mentally unstable mother in his autobiography. It was harrowing. But to keep writing about such material in an entire novel is a different matter. There’s the danger of repetitiousness. But the characters themselves keep throwing up surprises.
Em, for instance, was allowed to resign from her American Consulate job “when she started adding her own, and very alarming, comments to diplomatic reports.’ ‘Personal interpolations’, they called them. I loved that phrase and when I used it, aged eight or thereabouts, Em could still laugh though the joke was on her.”
Astonishingly for a Catholic lady of her time, she tells her future husband, in a letter, that she is afraid of sex, and that he should feel free to take a mistress. He replies, “Your body is yours to give or not. Should you decide not, I will respect that…Let me say, though, that I find all the signs most encouraging.”
• Animals studies on the curriculum
This is with reference to Eunice de Souza’s last week column ‘Educating emotions’, (PM, April 26). Just as the government has introduced a separate curriculum to educate our GenNext about global warming, I think there’s a need for a similar course to create awareness about animals, especially dogs and birds.
- Peter Ubale
• Cleanliness matters
I agree that as humans we must show compassion towards other beings but i beg to differ. I have tried keeping food and water for birds and strays, but it became a headache as i had to sweep the place daily.
- Bharat Gupta