Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Review: Em And The Big Hoom By Jerry Pinto

By: Jigar Brahmbhatt


She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them: Marquez writes in Love in the time of Cholera.

I like to believe that that is the case. In Gujarat, where I grew up, it is a common practice to not use a respectful address for one’s mother. You need not call her “aap” and often use “tu”, more intimate in comparison, and it removes the gap that “aap” presupposes. Having lived my formative years in a middle-class family, I look at mothers in a certain way. Mine has spent a better part of her life in the kitchen and managing our daily routines, limiting the many possibilities life could have offered. She has always been what I was supposed to fill on innumerable forms over the years: a housewife. And she is a good one at that. But once in a blue moon, when in a reflective mood, mostly when I visit her in our hometown and when we sit at the dining table after everyone in the family sleeps, she allows a hint of regret or something of its ilk to drop during our conversations. It is often subtle. But when it is pronounced it makes her look sad. It could be due to her body already feeling spent in her mid-fifties. But what is going on in her head when she puts aside her usually cheerful self on such rare occasions? I have asked her to write. I bought her a diary: write anything that comes into your head, about your life, about your childhood, about your health, anything. She usually waves it off with a smile: “when you are with me, I will talk. When you go back to Bombay, I will write”. I know she will never write.

When Peter Handke’s mother committed suicide, he took it on himself to record her life. His reasons were: “I know more about her and how she came to her death than any outside investigator who might, with the help of a religious, psychological, or sociological guide to the interpretation of dreams, arrive at a facile explanation…”. The result is an interesting little book titled “A sorrow beyond Dreams”. Filled with extreme hardship and disillusionment, Handke’s mother had spent her life trying to become, a word he carefully uses, an “individual”. What she does to herself is not the result of a moment’s frenzy, but a culmination of slowly accumulating pain over the years. That is how Handke looks at it, and that is how he tries to make us look. What went on inside his mother’s head is the soul concern of the book. And such is the concern of Jerry Pinto’s book. But Em is immensely fascinating, a Prospero high on nicotine.

Pinto’s design relies heavily on conversation. He structures the book around letters written by Em, words spoken by Em, and a lot of times the narrative is moulded on how and where Em’s whimsies take you when you talk to her. She uses words interestingly and often there is a hint of trapped intelligence deep inside her:

“Did it leave a God-sized hole in your life?”
“That sounds suspiciously like a quotation,” she said. “I wish you wouldn’t. I never feel like having conversation with someone who quotes”.
She looked at me, a cold, hard stare.
“It is a quote, isn’t it?”
“It feels like one”.
“I hate quotes,” she said fiercely. “I feel like I am talking to a book. I feel like I am talking to History. I feel like I am being practiced upon”
“Practiced upon?”
“For a public performance. For a debate club. For some schoolboy shit like that.”

She speaks without filters. She once tells her kids that she never wanted to have children, and goes on a long rant about how it is a woman who should bear the brunt and all. But when she realizes that she is talking to her own children, she withdraws: “off course, when it happens you don’t regret it and all that shit, okay?”

In her early letters, the narrator sees a spirited young woman who was far removed from the Em he knew, and he saw the father, called The Big Hoom, in a very different light. They were two young people and their love story is told mostly in remembrances. This then is the epicentre of the novel, the curiosity of the narrator to know what happened, like Handke’s curiosity, curiosities to know more about mothers who didn’t fit in the norm. Pinto writes: “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.”

When I was 100 pages into the book, I disliked the fact that a lot of it was mere recounting, and that the writer should have invested more time in carving out proper scenes, the way Naipaul transported his pain into the magisterial canvas of A House for Mr Biswas. I felt that the scenes featuring the pastoral Goan life of the Big Hoom (who thankfully and conveniently was like a rock they all could depend on) could have benefited from a bit of drama than mere “telling”. But I understand, after finishing the book and having recently attempted a family narrative myself, that in the third person one feels removed from the family one writes about. One feels distant and in that state the juices of lived experience are not mixed the way they should. I am, off course, not generalizing but trying to understand Pinto’s choice of narrative. At one point, he talks about the state of mental illness in India and shock therapy. They take Em to a clinic once because her erratic behaviour was out of control, and a week later “she was returned to us as from the dry-cleaners”. She has been subjected to shocks and she behaves unlike herself during the whole sequence. I understand the need for an intimate approach here. There is pain involved and it must be tackled only in the first person, because you can write “returned to us” instead of “returned to them”. It makes a whole lot of difference.

I seriously considered successful third-person family narratives (One hundred years of Solitude, Family Matters, The Pleasure Seekers) and more personal first-person accounts (this book, Handke’s book, I curse the river of Time) and wondered what approach would be better? The former can provide an arc through which events are freely interlinked in space-time, while the latter can turn into nothing more than psychological confessions. The former has the danger of turning too descriptive, too pedantic, while the latter has the danger of turning too subjective, too boring. Pinto writes “our” Em at a lot of places. We feel the emotional charge of that word choice; the kind of possibility omnipresent narrator cannot provide. Our Em: it sounds so “accepting” that you forgive the lack of proper drama. He also manages well by discarding chronology, his prose jumps between timelines in the manner of Em’s conversations, and he sets some beautiful scenes along the way, scenes of moving impact, especially because he makes you equally curious about Em, makes you care for her, and the book slowly reaches where a narrative like this eventually reaches: the mother’s death. To call the whole effect devastating would, I guess, be a compliment.

And I learned yet again that there is great freedom if the first person is used well. I stumbled upon a short story by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, whose mother was also mentally ill and he talks about her death in the story. It is titled “Death Registers”. This is how it starts:

“My mother was a madwoman.”

Can we deny the stark, direct power of this sentence!?


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