Cruel and unusual
Em and the Big Hoom, the first novel by the Mumbai writer Jerry Pinto, is a near-perfect account of a psychologically troubled mother and the shockwaves felt by her family
Photograph: Jessica Islam Lia/Getty
Em and the Big Hoom
Not such a great title, perhaps, but Jerry Pinto’s rich and beguiling debut novel, based on his mother’s mental illness, is the story of his parents, Em and the Big Hoom. It may not have the most beautiful jacket, either, yet within sentences of this touching, funny and calmly shocking narrative, their son makes it clear that he knows about the things that really matter.
Book titles and covers are unimportant in the face of real life and suffering, fear and madness, most especially when watching madness as experienced by someone else. In the case of Pinto’s narrator it was his mother who walked a tightrope between vicious sanity and destructive insanity, and all while her family watched.
“If there was one thing I feared as I was growing up . . . No, that’s stupid. I feared hundreds of things: the dark, the death of my father, the possibility that I might rejoice at the death of my mother . . . But of all of these, I feared most the possibility that I might go mad too . . . All I had was my mind and that was at peril from my genes.”
The narrator is the son of two very different parents: his mother, Imelda, fled Rangoon, in Burma, as a girl with her parents when the Japanese attacked. She was educated, dreamed of French literature and seemed destined for university. For a while she had taught and was duly terrified by her pupils. Then she went to work in an office where she met the man she nicknamed the Big Hoom. “She also called him Mambo, and Augie March, but almost never by his given name, Augustine.”
Her son, the narrator, appears to sigh audibly throughout the telling of the tale, which, for all its agonies, comes to life under the lightness of his prose: “It intrigues me, love. Especially theirs, which seems to have been full of codes and rituals, almost all of them devised by her.” As for his quiet, courageous and loyal father: “He called her Imelda . . . and, sometimes, Beloved.”
Sharing the horror of the mother’s many suicide attempts, as well as her cruel comments and coarse eloquence, is the narrator’s sister, Susan. Yet the true heart of the novel, which took Pinto more than 20 years to write, eventually arriving at little more than 60,000 words, is his portrait of his father, a wonderful man who emerges as dignified and kindly.
Pinto’s love for his father is the most powerful emotion in the story. He refers to the traditional view of maternity as central. “It wasn’t. Not in my world . . . The Big Hoom was my rock and my refuge. He knew what to do, how to handle stuff . . . I tried imagining my life without him and immediately grew cold with fear . . . I would only grow up when the Big Hoom died. Only then would I learn how to deal with the world, this city, this life.”
Far less graphic than Delphine De Vigan’s Nothing Holds B ack the Night (2011, English translation 2013), which is almost as much about the author as it is about De Vigan’s tragic mother, Pinto’s book is shocking in its impressive understatement and is far less voyeuristic. Pinto is as angry as De Vigan. This is less about a writer producing a work than about a son remembering what it was like and how much it hurt.
Pinto writes with impressive ease and humour, both of which temper his candour and the detailed memories of the many drugs that offered hope before creating more disaster.
Even when well, Em is difficult, cigarette in hand, holding court and being provocative. She has no interest in cooking or in being a normal mother. She is not even too keen on personal hygiene. Her ego spares no one, and her cold intelligence is formidable – there are glimpses of this throughout: “Typing was about getting English out of a machine.”
Pinto also quotes from her letters, which are literary; although she is never mentioned, Jean Rhys seems to hover. When not depressed, Imelda could hold forth, unlike her mother. “Em’s mother spoke in code. She omitted almost all the important words in every sentence. She had had far too many languages drummed into her ears – first Konkani in Goa, then Burmese in Rangoon, then Bengali in wartime Calcutta, and now English, in which her child [the narrator’s mother] spoke and dreamed.”
Pinto is an interesting writer with a varied career. He is a journalist and coauthor of the biography of the Indian beauty and actress Leela Naidu (1940-2009), who was an Audrey Hepburn-type character, independently minded and very unusual in the context of Indian cinema.
Pinto has also written many children’s books, and this narrative triumphs through its lucidity and directness, particularly the way in which the narrator/son, even when an adult working in a newspaper office, remains a child, half hoping for, yet still dreading, his mother’s inevitable death. It is a family memoir, and the individuals and their reactions are real. Yet for all its intimacy, Pinto looks at mental illness, particularly as suffered in India, in a far wider content, referring to the extent to which electroconvulsive therapy continues to be used, even on schoolboys.
Living with Em was to be perpetually tensed, waiting to find her, her wrists slashed – as they often did. At home she was in danger; in hospital she felt safe. Often she would request to be hospitalised. Once settled in ward 33, she went about becoming the perfect patient, eager to help others. Em seemed to thrive on the mayhem she created.
Yet, for all the anger, Pinto is not taking revenge. His mother is the cause of the book, but she is not the story. Pinto is too good a writer for that. He has written a work that instead triumphs through his evocation of mental states as much as of mental illness. His nerve-end observations sustain the narrative: “The Staywell Clinic” – quite a name for a psychiatric unit – “was run by Dr Alberto D’Souza, one of the city’s senior-most psychiatrists. Had Alfred Hitchcock been born an Indian, he would have looked like Dr Alberto. He was short, he was round, he was bald, he was lugubrious, his jowls sagged and his face was puffy to the point that it seemed as if the fat were restricting his freedom of expression.”
For once Mumbai, the city that dominates so much of India’s finest writing, is merely a subdued backdrop. Pinto has simply too much going on with his characters to allow the city a major role. It is not a criticism. The narrator recalls a scene back at home in the family’s cramped apartment. His sister is crying, silently, while his father speaks to Em, “in a quiet rumble, like distant thunder”.
Suddenly the narrator realises that his mother appears to have forgotten the existence of a famous local candy shop. “She was the only adult I knew who loved sweets with the same animal passion as children . . . And now she had forgotten, and the world was lying askew around us.”
It is a simple comment, almost a throwaway in a likeable, moving and truthful novel inspired in equal measures by pain and love and so much dread. There may not be such a thing as a perfect book, yet Jerry Pinto comes heartbreakingly close.