[Did a version of this review for The Hindustan Times. There’s a longer, more personal piece I’d like to write about this book sometime – about the chord it struck for me both as a son and as a writer – but I’m not quite ready for it yet. Some other time, hopefully]
The easy way to describe Jerry Pinto’s autobiographical novel Em and the Big Hoom is to say that it is a son’s account of life with a mentally unstable mother. Imelda Mendes is called “Em” by her two children, the unnamed narrator and his elder sister Susan. Their father Augustine – affectionate, dependable but taciturn – is “the Big Hoom”, and they all live together in a one-BHK flat in Mahim. Imelda has always been an energetic woman, but at some point after her children were born “someone turned on a tap” and a crippling depression set in - she has a few good days, but on the many bad ones even the trenches dug by the municipal corporation outside the house might seem like part of a threatening conspiracy. (“We never knew when the weather would change dramatically with Em.”) The family rallies around her and each other; the narrator describes their lives with a heartbreaking mix of tenderness and humour.
Mad is an everyday, ordinary word. It is compact. It fits into songs. As the old Hindi film song has it, M-A-D, mad maane paagal. It can become a phrase - "Maddaw-what?" which began life as "Are you mad or what?". It can be everything you choose it to be: a mad whirl, a mad idea, a mad March day, a mad heiress, a mad mad mad mad world, a mad passion, a mad dog. But it is different when you have a mad mother. Then the world wakes up from time to time and blinks at you, eyes of fire.
That makes this sound like a very particular story about a very particular person, but Em and the Big Hoom is much more universal in its appeal. Read carefully and you might agree that it isn’t just about a “special” mother, it is about parents in a more general sense – parents as the looking glasses that we sometimes recoil from because in their aging faces and increasingly erratic behaviour we see our future selves – as well as a reminder that “normalcy” and “madness” are not airtight categories. Anyone who has ever experienced the fading of a parent should feel a shudder of recognition when the narrator mulls living in a world that “continues to be idyllic and inviting for you but your mother is being sucked into the centre of the earth [...]The imperium of the world’s timetable will allow you to break step and fall out for a while, but it will abandon you too if you linger too long”.
This gentle, kaleidoscopic narrative is many other things. It is a remembrance of the long courtship between Imelda and Augustine, and a son's attempt to understand what two people he takes for granted (“if you would just get that familiarity thing out of your eyes...” his mother tells him) might have been like in a very distant time, the Mumbai of the 50s and 60s (when Imelda worked as a stenotypist in an engineering-goods company, one of the few options available to a girl from her community and background). It is a story about four people living in a small house where privacy is not an option, a litany of very candid conversations (not all of them occurring beneath a facade of mental illness) and delightful pen-portraits: consider Em’s mother, who speaks in elisions, omitting important words in every sentence so that one has to infer what a question like “Where do you thissing?” might mean.
And this is also, in a strange but illuminating way, a book about writers and writing. Much of our understanding of Em’s state of mind comes from her journal entries, reproduced throughout the narrative, and letters such as the meandering one in which she acknowledges the seriousness of her relationship with Augustine (and her realisation that she was no longer just an “I” but part of a “we”). We are told that she was a seemingly effortless writer – one who might have made a career out of it in another lifetime – but also that compulsive writing may be a manifestation of her condition. “She was free associating, gliding through language.”
Given this, it is notable that the narrator himself tries to fight his genes by seeking refuge in the rigours of writing. “One of the defences I had devised against the possibility of madness was that I would explain every feeling I had to myself, track everything down to its source [...] I worked it out on a piece of paper...” And at another point: “I felt, instinctively, that when you had enough words ... you would be able to deal with the world.” The writer in him reaches for ways to convey his feelings about his mother, but also recognises the impossibility of the task; after writing half a page of elegant prose about dark towers and their residents, he concedes that “as all analogies must, this one breaks down too”.
This may help one understand why Pinto – a prolific, busy writer-journalist known for juggling projects with ease – took more than two decades to complete this very personal book (which, he has said in interviews, was originally 10 times its current length). And this brings me to my one quibble about Em and the Big Hoom: the fact that it is presented as a work of fiction. While it works as a novel on its own terms (the writing is consistently vivid and moving enough to appeal to the reader who approaches it as a purely made-up story), I think it works even better if you know who the narrator is, and a little more about his own writing life.
I don’t usually spend time thinking about how “autobiographical” a novel is (any book, even one set in an imagined fantasy landscape, is in some sense autobiography) or how "exaggerated" a memoir is, but reading Em and the Big Hoom, I felt – for the first time in a long while – that it mattered. At least it matters to me because, speaking as a reader-writer envious of the quality and range of Pinto’s work, this book seems to reveal much about his own imperatives. Trivial though this might sound (and unconnected with the very high quality of the writing), I wish it had “Memoir” printed on its jacket flap.