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Review Books
Book: Em and the Big Hoom

Author: Jerry Pinto

Publisher: Aleph

Pages: 235

Price: Rs 495

On page 28 of Jerry Pinto's Em and The Big Hoom, Em, the mother, tells her narrator-son: "We'll never make it to a heartrending story you can read on your summer vacation." I had, in fact, planned to do just that read it sometime mid-June during a vacation. A little put off by the din of hype jacket endorsements by big-ticket writers, obliging media interviews, Pinto's close friends writing fawning reviews I had decided to tackle this novel in quiet, on my own terms. The next morning, plainly curious, perched on the commode, I began sceptically flipping the pages of this unsurprisingly autobiographical first novel. I chuckled when I made it quickly to page 28. When I finished it, I wanted to congratulate and salute Jerry in an email. Instead, I decided to pay my tribute with a review and earn some money for appreciating his book something past master Jerry Pinto would appreciate, a Bombay hack who wrote for money from a very young age when he had to find a means to support his mother's medical expenses.

With not much of a plot to bank on, Pinto takes us into the small world of a small cast of characters the writer-narrator piecing together the stories; his mother, Em/Imelda Mendes, touched by the hand of God, hence mental/mad; the stoic heroic father, Augustine/The Big Hoom, also Angel Ears to Em, for the ears "look like bits of bacon curled up from too much frying"; the narrator's sister, Susan; and finally, the memorably etched Granny/Mae who makes you chuckle each time she lisp-slurs half-swallowed words.

The narrator draws us slowly and lovingly into the lives of Em and Hoom, their office romance, their 12-year-long courtship (in bookshops, because of their "high-ceilinged rooms with slow-turning fans", "for the evening light") and their marriage. All this is done by looking at old letters and scraps of paper that Em has preserved in "cheerful cloth bags" to which the son and the daughter have unrestricted access; and by the son listening to Em recall fragments of her life lying in Ward 33 (Psychiatric) of Sir J.J. Hospital or over endless cups of tea.

As a caregiver to a mother who eats Iodex when she is not trying to kill herself, and is most times smoking Ganesh Chaap beedis (hence foulmouthed in more than one way), the narrator's constant fear as he grows up is inheriting the madness, like people inherit diabetes. His father, "his rock and refuge", tells him, "Fight your genes." But the son fears that the enemy might already be inside his head as he learns to love a woman who can be as tender as she can be mean.

Besides a delightfully meandering meditation on madness, what Jerry has also produced is a fine Bombay novel (with a few forays into Goa) that wears the city lightly on its sleeve. He does not have to belabour his grasp of the city with thick descriptions of chawls, rains and trains; he does not have to prove his Bombay. A Brijwasi sweet store, the suburb of Mahim and J.J. Hospital mark their presence, but more as necessary ways of entering the minds of the characters. This is a novel that firmly and defiantly stays indoors and turns an unrelenting yet funny gaze on the mysterious workings of a dysfunctional family.

The cover of the book features an image drawn by Jerry. It is the profile of a woman patterned with tiny bead-like circles that make up the face, the hair. Fragments of this adorn the thirteen chapter-openers of the book, like pieces of a jigsaw. This echoes Jerry's craft as well: like Em, he "free associates" and "glides through language" to tell the stories of the four lives trapped in "a small flat in a city of small flats". The son's effort to write, to narrativise, to make sense of how and when Em ceased to be "a whole" becomes a way of dealing with life, and coming to terms with the fear of living in a house where the knives have to be kept blunt so that suicide is not easy for Em. It's a way of dealing with the fear of seeing his father, The Big Hoom "a man with a future who had given it up all to make sure the present was manageable" die before Em does. The narrator writes and talks his way into "sanity". Or so we think.

For Em also makes us ask, what is sanity? The questions when did it all start, when did Hoom have the first inkling of Em's madness, what was the "trigger" elude an answer till the end. Jerry has given us in Em a deeply subversive character: an ordinary lower middle-class Goan Roman Catholic non-graduate woman who has to start earning from age 16; a woman who draws up an agreement with her future husband to define her right to her body before entering matrimony; a woman not too thrilled being a Muddhah; a woman who defiantly supports her parents with her salary and continues to do so stealthily even when she is confined and is made to feel guilty about this by her husband; a woman who asks her son if he is getting any sex; a woman who defies the "norm" in every which way and casually asserts her difference. Now if she is mad, shouldn't we all be a little?

Partake of this novel a rare one in Indian literature with a mentally ill protagonist over many cups of tea and some Iodex. Maybe we can pretend to be sane by skipping the Iodex.

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