Mama Em’s Cope Book
The weeks following the appearance of one’s book in print make up the loneliest arc of spacetime in a writer’s life. Unless, of course, there’s going to be no next book.
For Jerry Pinto, I think there will be. And so, rather than empathise with the writer’s anomie, camaraderie demands I confront his book.
Em and the Big Hoom is a long awaited novel from a writer whose poetry and non-fiction I have read over the last 15 years with interest. I’ve enjoyed his language columns and admire his ear for the local inflections that map the patois of a city that has appropriated English as its own. Em is also one of the first novels from a new publisher.
The book is elegantly jacketed but marred by hyperpnoeic blurbs, a couple of hosannas that leave Roget looking laconic, and the reader too bedazzled to read. It is a nice sturdy clothbound inside, and, bibliophiles beware, just the right size for the discerning kleptomaniac.
The second worry that kept me from reading the book immediately was the content. Writers have been trying to pluck from the brain a rooted sorrow, long before Shakespeare invented the phrase. After Freud, it practically became a duty to mistrust the sane. It was only through madness that one could hope to unravel the human condition. Which was great for Art, but hell on the living. The literature of that time overlooked the horrific exigencies of madness, and the brutish stratagems devised to contain it. These are things we know by hindsight, and we are now appalled by them.
Does it take away the truths those books gave us? For madness isn’t about truth any more. There are no more rooted sorrows to contend with. It is all chemistry now. If the mad molecule’s got you, it’s got you, and never mind that it has no name. The pharmacy of madness is ensconced in literature’s bathroom shelf now, but madness itself has undergone a paradigm shift. The insane no longer matter; the burning question is what insanity can pull off on the sane. The patient is no longer the victim. That status belongs to family, more fashionably called caregivers.
To me, this seems to have brought the story of madness full circle. Instead of chains, straitjackets and gags, we now have a fistful of pills that can restrain and silence far more effectively. Instead of dungeons, we have psychiatric clinics to erase existence. Instead of a blunt instrument, we have surgical therapies that bludgeon the patient into submission. Madness has once again become its ancient self—an act of God (or chemistry). With luck, we’ll find even more ways to live with it.
Literature too must shift its gaze, and focus instead on the anxiety of the family. You only need to recall the titles of the most talked about books of the last decade to see this dislocation. Compassion has given way to coping. The mind is no longer the arena of desire.
But here’s one place where life has stayed more idealistic than Art. The mad are still cherished, still protected from unkindness, still understood by their bewildered families to whom compassion is still the easiest way of coping.
For all its politically correct euphemisms, the recent literature of madness is no more than a reverberating epithet: Pagal! or Maddy!
This dismays me.
Which of the two faces of madness would I find in Em and the Big Hoom?
EM is what the narrator and his sister Susan call their mother. The Big Hoom is their occasional name for their father, Augustine. The account is staggered between the son’s observations and the mother’s diary and letters.
‘While Em’s letters were public documents in the family, neither Susan nor I read her diaries during her lifetime... Perhaps we had understood very early that they would give us no clues to her illness, or ways to reach her on her worst days. Or—and this may be closer to the truth—we were afraid of what we might find there, and afraid of having to deal with it. Even now, I look in Em’s notebook not for my mother but for Augustine’s Beloved.’
That quote on page 19 predicts the tenor of the narrative. The son’s bafflement seeks consolation, not answers. The awfulness of the moment can only be survived by imagining the parents’ romance. That romance alone can explain the durable sanity of the Big Hoom in the face of complete chaos. It is an interesting device, this childish need for ‘the olden days’ and Pinto uses picaresque anecdotes effectively to summon up a golden time before the bad days began.
After one (and there were many) suicide attempt, Em tells her son about her affliction. ‘… she told me about the tap that opened at my birth and the black drip filling her up and it tore a hole in my heart. If that was what she could manage with a single sentence, what did thirty years of marriage do to the Big Hoom?’
That really is the central question in the book: how did they cope, Em and the Big Hoom?
Meanwhile, there is the experiential Em: try as he will, the son cannot elide her. Pinto takes one brief tough jab at the isolation of madness. This is good, but the novel’s timeframe demands more. The changing language of mental illness and its therapies are reviewed, but I’m not talking reportage here. I expected the narrative voice to change in its perceptions not just of Em and her madness, but of the world itself. It does change, but in an adolescent aspect. Perhaps intentional, this is in keeping with the elegiac tone where deeper introspection would be intrusive.
The lives of the narrator and his sister Susan have moved silently, and unobtrusively, through the years. There are mild resentments, very few and far between. When the narrator has a bad day and lashes out at Em, her response, terrifyingly sane at the height of her mania, shows that she understands his frustration, but there’s a swift gearshift here, almost as if it was a mistake to have brought up the incident at all.
Em and The Big Hoom is as much a novel about what we choose to remember, as it is about coping with chaos. The prose has a muted sepia tone that keeps the grain from showing. I wanted the novel to flay, but almost all negative emotions are kept sternly at bay, and I worry about the young man and his courageous sister. For though much is made of the Big Hoom’s ‘rock-like stability’, it is the unquestioning love of her children that sustains Em to the end.
Jerry Pinto has restrained his prose rather severely, but the poet shows up occasionally. The book assures the reader that compassion is still the best way of coping. In these days of chemical corrections and erasures, that surely is a good thing to know.