My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I had to create a new shelf on Goodreads for this book – family. Because that is what Em and The Big Hoom is about. Family, in all it’s fragility and pain. But Jerry Pinto has somehow made a painful sad story into one of love and hope, of accepting our human-ness (for want of a better word) and all that it entails, even at the cost of one’s sanity. It doesn’t make you sad, this book. It just leaves this warm fuzzy hangover of a feeling that you knew the Mendeses as intimately as the author himself. There are little parts here and there that pierce straight to your heart and, if you were to mull upon the words, it brings out feelings that you won’t normally have when reading a book.
Em is the mother (she herself says it like a cuss word – Mudh-dha). The Big Hoom is the father. There’s Susan the sister. And our narrator. They live in a 1 bedroom-hall-kitchen flat in Bombay. What makes them different from any other middle class family of their time is Em – she’s ‘mad’. Manic depressive or schizophrenic or delusional – there’s never just one diagnosis. And the narrative is about how the family copes with Em and her repeated attempts at suicide. The story is set more like a set of events and dialogues, attempts by the narrator to learn about Em and her history with The Big Hoom (their rock in that tumultuous ocean of depression that was Em).
I love Em. She’s so endearing, even in her madness or rather because of it. She’s so honest and irreverent, even towards her children (in one of her bouts of depression she says she didn’t really want to have children!) that, at times, you don’t know whom to feel sorry for – Em or her family. We are exposed to all those moments of self-doubt and fear the narrator has, when he has to be there for her but doesn’t really want to even though she’s his mother. That conflict, for me, was the most poignant piece of the story. I have extended family who deal with differently-abled children and I can imagine that pain, that helplessness one feels when being a caregiver 24×7.
This paragraph describes perfectly how it all is, to be one –
“I sympathized with Granny but I also felt a deep vexation. She loved Em and she thought that should be enough. It wasn’t. Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You’re a tourist; she’s a resident.”
The style of the narrative is something I’m encountering for the first time – it’s refreshing and easy on the mind. It’s like this window through which we can see into that little Bombay flat, seeing that family go through a not-very-normal life in a normal way. You can’t help but fall in love with them.
There’s also a bit of humor in the narrative, which is surprising considering the subject. And also a bit of a relief. Like this –
“‘You know when I found your Debonair …’
‘Oh, I put it back, don’t worry. Behind the tank in the toilet, what a place! I suppose you’d have hidden them under the mattress in your room, if you had a room. Poor beetle, where else are you going to fiddle?’
‘Anyway, I looked at the centrefolds and I thought, some nice girls. But I didn’t want to nuzzle.’
Her conversation had a way of reducing me to exclamations. I think she enjoyed that and worked out exactly how she was going to do it.”
There are many more heart-warming and some chilling conversations too. Probably what kept me hooked because it was all very comforting and disconcerting at the same time!
And hence the hangover. I haven’t picked up my next book yet. I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to lose this fuzzy feeling I have. Maybe I’m in mourning.