EM and the big hoom
By Jerry Pinto,
Aleph, Rs 495
“We can take your dead body, anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” said the rather astonishing sign in front of an undertaker’s shop. An aeroplane with a coffin dangling from it was the more astonishing illustration. This meets the weeping eyes of the narrator in Em and the Big Hoom when he comes to arrange for his mother’s burial after she has died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
There are many unexpected things about her death. The narrator, whose childhood, teenage and young manhood we follow through the intimate oscillations of his irresistible yet brittle communication with his mother, Em, always thought — feared — that his father, the Big Hoom, would die first. And then what would he do with Em, the manic-depressive, brilliant, suicidal, paranoid, witty, roistering, beedi-smoking, often unbathed, smelly, uninhibited woman, who, with her usual devastating frankness, called herself mad? But after years of drugs, even electro-convulsive “throppy”, suicide attempts and blood soaked bathrooms, regular stays in Ward 33 (Psychiatric) of Sir J.J. Hospital, she dies of a quiet heart attack in her sleep.
The narrator’s response to the undertaker’s sign is a clue to his stance in this difficult story. For a boy growing up with a repeatedly suicidal mother in a 420 square-foot apartment in Bombay, humour is as necessary as the ability to keep breathing. It is a lifeline to a sense of proportion, the slippery edge of a constant distancing, an expression of love and of the desire for normalcy. For Jerry Pinto, the writer, humour is the buffer to sentimentality. Witty, bleak, acid, funny, sharp, cruel — the tone is modulated cleverly, delicately by Pinto as his narrator weaves in and out of time to excavate two love stories — his parent’s, and his own with his mother.
Around this theme grows up a Bombay from the 1960s to the 1980s that houses the narrator’s Goan Roman Catholic community — “Wholly Roaming Cat Licks”, according to Em — peopled by characters such as Gertrude who loves a married “Muzlim” or Em’s mother who substitutes “thissing” for every key verb. So low-key is the presence of the church that it is impossible to be sure if there is guilt in Em’s instability, although sex and babies figure often in her verbal games. The Big Hoom, for Em, is both Angel Ears and LOS — Limb of Satan. Only the narrator feels his faith ooze away like sand in an hourglass in his adolescence as he watches his mother suffer.
Perhaps one of the most striking qualities of Pinto’s first novel is the vividness of the narrator’s experience of his mother. There is hardly a plot, unless the putting together of the fragmented, lyrical, slightly hallucinatory story of his parents’ — Augustine and Imelda’s — love in 1960s Bombay can be given that name. Yet the pace of the story never flags — sentences verging on the sentimental are truly rare — and the sense is of a colourful, sizzling world of the imagination.
The names are intriguing: “She was always Em to us. There may have been a time when we called her something ordinary like Mummy, or Ma, but I don’t remember. She was Em, and our father, sometimes, was the Big Hoom.… On certain days we called her Doogles, or The Horse, or other such names that sprang from some subterranean source and vanished equally quickly.” The title holds on to this strangeness even at the risk of sounding arch. Typically, neither the narrator nor his sister, Susan, can explain the names; they were just the way they were, like their family was.
But “Em” was at least acceptable. The children are hurt yet fascinated by the venom with which she pronounces the word, “Mud-dh-ha”, something she sometimes seems to hate having become. (The possibility of “Buddha” shimmers within the secret poetry of Pinto’s prose.) She does not hesitate to tell them, however cruel this is to her son, that a tap opened inside her after he was born: “At first it was only a drip, a black drip, and I felt it as a sadness…. It’s like oil. Like molasses, slow at first. Then one morning I woke up and it was flowing free and fast. I thought I would drown in it.”
It is in the conversations of the narrator with Em that Pinto’s magic is most evident. Free-associating, “gliding along language”, Em moves from subject to subject, disconcerting her son with her frankness and loudness, yet mesmerizing him with stories of her past, his past, of his father’s courting of her in the bookshops of an older Bombay, with her innocent acceptance of her exploitative parents, while her son searches desperately for the trauma that broke her. These exchanges seem almost transparent, as if the reader is present. But the narrator knows that he, just like his father and sister, is shut out of her pain, he can only look into the dark room from the outside.
Ambivalence suffuses his sensibility. He loves his mother, he would like to kill her, he is afraid of her uninhibited insight, he is focused on her — all of them are — waiting, watching, willing her to be well. He wonders how his father can be so patient, then he and his sister turn into caretakers when they find Em with slit wrists covered in blood. He is terrified of becoming mad, and needs the soothing rationality of a connected narrative to calm his own fears.
But again, writing is something his mother does best. Her letters, diaries and scraps she has collected in cloth bags tell half the story. Her son needs this gene to beat the more dangerous one. His narration, that is, Pinto’s insidious, elegant, crafty, funny, picturesque prose, is Em’s gift; she is the undiscovered writer from whom words take life. Is madness a kind of unearthly brilliance? Where does creativity come from? These questions hover as others, equally disturbing, are also raised. How deep down does Em reside in her son’s sensibility? Isn’t she perfectly recognizable, even at her wildest or darkest? Must all mothers feel motherly? How ‘normal’ is normal?