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Myth of a ‘normal family’

BOOK BAZAAR

The “normal family” is a myth and no family is perfect. The family is actually “a human institution that’s always nurturing, constricting and damaging you,” said Jerry Pinto, writer, columnist and now first-time novelist, at the Oxford Bookstore recently.

The narrator of Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry’s debut novel, is always longing for a normal family — “a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother” — because his mother Em is manic depressive.

And “it is different when you have a mad mother”. This moving novel, focused almost entirely on the one bedroom-cum-kitchen flat in Mahim, is a thinly veiled autobiography. Imelda Mendes — Em to her children — is based on Jerry’s mother and Augustine-the Big Hoom grows from Jerry’s impression of his father who taught him and sister Andrea to bypass self-pity and sentimentality by undertaking public service. “He was a Gandhian who made us wear khadi, wash our own clothes and made us clean the public toilet once a week.”

Some of this restraint and economy of emotion allows the book to grow into a multilayered quest to understanding sanity and insanity, the duties of society to all individuals, the role of parents, love that crosses all boundaries and the justice of creation.

The novel lets us into Em’s world, where mental sickness takes over — first in a “black drip” of sadness from a “tap someone left open” which continues to flow and threatens to drown everything because “there is no drain”.

There is humour, albeit black, in the narration of the social stigma Em’s children face, their fear of succumbing to the genes, the daily insecurity, moments of intense tenderness and sorrow at seeing a loved one suffer, the bouts of anger and hatred when one calls one’s mother a “disgusting bitch”, the desire to escape followed by guilt.

The book, written mostly as questions and answers interspersed with Em’s letters and notes, is an attempt to “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”.

The book has not had a cathartic effect, said the author. “It is like when you shift a heavy school satchel to another part of your shoulder so that the buckle cutting into your skin is a little more bearable.”

The novel questions our attitude to madness and the prescriptions that are handed out to people who are not “normal”.

According to Jerry, there is a bit of madness in everyone, yet “we try to iron everyone out to fit in with the other cookie-cut people”.

There is something so attractive and endearing about Em that when the book ends and life for the narrator is more “normal”, one can’t help but feel that the world is also a lot poorer and blander.

60 going on sexy

In a black dress outlining her perfect figure and wearing a string of pearls, Namita Jain seemed the right person to write Sexy@sixty (Westland, Rs 200), launched at Oxford Bookstore recently. “I have been in the industry for well over 25 years now.... I am 40,” said the wellness specialist before the event.

“You don’t need to be exercise freaks, but must want to stay fit. Taking care of your own health is the best insurance,” said Namita.

Why 60, was the question on everyone's mind. “It is the age when you are kind of done with most of your responsibilities. What better age than that?” asked the writer.

PR consultant Rita Bhimani, who was in conversation with the author, said: “What is interesting about the book is that it gives a lot of information in an easy-paced way and is not at all preachy.”

Contributed by Sebanti Sarkar and Sryeoshi Dey