O MOTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
Jerry Pinto’s sad and funny novel about coping with a mother’s mental illness relegates the rest of the family to the margins, as madness will, says ANJALI JOSEPH
IN SAMUEL BECKETT’S short play, Footfalls (1976), a woman, May, paces a narrow stage in half-darkness. At first, she talks to her invisible but audible mother (V for Voice) who asks: “Will you never have done... revolving it all?” By the second part of the play, May is herself speaking in the voice of the mother, asking the same question.
There may not be obvious similarities but Em and the Big Hoom does evoke Beckett’s play. The novel follows the narrator through his life as a child, then an adult, with his father (the Big Hoom), sister (Susan) and mother (Em). Em’s is the dominant story — as told to the narrator, or observed by him, in her diaries and letters from which he quotes. The book follows her adolescence, her jobs as a teacher then a typist, her meeting and dilatory dating of the Big Hoom, their marriage, the birth of the two children and her subsequent experience of terrible mental illness, which in the India of the time boils down to being ‘mad’. Other diagnoses come in too – ‘nerves’, ‘nervous breakdown’, ‘schizophrenic’, ‘manic depressive’ among them — but essentially, and for Em herself, madness is the simplest and most useful descriptor. Em is the prophet of her own madness.
Although it has some memorable scenes, the novel is marked more by a series of long conversations. Frequently, Em’s children are her straight men, asking questions and providing prompts that enable her to continue talking and wisecracking. Em can be charming, valiant and idiosyncratic, as seen in scenes of her walking home eating dates, or supporting her parents with her wages, or recounting tales of her eccen- tric mother, who speaks in gnomic utterances, generally substituting “thissing” for any relevant noun or verb.
Em and the Big Hoom is also a story of suicide attempts, of recurring stays in Ward 33 of the JJ Hospital, of restricted means — four people in a one-bedroom flat, enough food, money for books, but no refrigerator, no servant. The novel maps a certain moment in middle-class Bombay. “You are mental, aunty?” queries a young man in a hospital waiting room; Em eagerly agrees. “Window shopping was tourism once upon a time,” she tells her children, reflecting on an age before mass consumerism.
It’s also the story of an unconventional woman in an unconventional family. Recalling a time when lithium improved Em’s condition, the narrator says, “We could taste our own happiness” although even the period of peace “did not make her an ordinary mother”. Em’s story leaves little room for the narrator’s: is this because of her madness or her personality? It’s hard to tell. In a moving description of what it is like to have a mentally ill parent, the narrator says, “Some part of you walks on [from her suffering], and some part of you is frozen there, watching the spectacle.” The writing is spare and vivid — flourishes of word play and chutnification are left to Em — and this sad, funny, honest novel finishes by being testament both to the tenderness and cruelty that families can inflict.
Joseph is the author of Saraswati Park
Chronicling life Jerry Pinto
EM AND THE BIG HOOM Jerry Pinto Aleph Book Company 235 pp; ₹495