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

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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

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