The City Inside

By Amitava Kumar

Jerry Pinto, Em and the Big Hoom
Penguin Books, 2014
$16.00; 240 pages

There is the small mystery of the title — but it is quickly solved. Em and the Big Hoom are the names of the narrator’s parents: “‘Em must mean M for Mother’ and ‘Maybe it’s because he made “hoom” sounds when we asked him something.’”

The bigger mystery that preoccupies the young unnamed narrator of Jerry Pinto’s slim novel is about the origins of his mother’s mental sickness. From her hospital bed, when she observes a man taking a woman’s hand in his, Em says: “That’s why Indian women fall ill. So that their husbands will hold their hands.”

This could be a clue, Pinto’s narrator thinks, and he asks his mother whether her desire for Hoom’s love is the reason she is now in the hospital. This is just one of his many questions; Em’s responses, sometimes pointed, sometimes elusive, are always colorful. On this occasion, her reply pierces the boy’s heart with hurt: “I don’t know, Baba, I don’t know why. It’s a tap somewhere. It opened where you were born.”

Em and the Big Hoom, recently released in the US, is an assured and endearing debut. It is a coming-of-age novel and a portrait of madness. Em suffers from a bipolar disorder. In her manic state, she is “a rough, rude, roistering woman.” And then there is her dark mood, which her son fears “as if it were a wild animal with flecks of foam at its mouth.”

This novel also demonstrates a particular way of writing about the city. In an interview for a newspaper in India, where the book was published two years ago, Pinto told the reporter about his native Mumbai: “The city outside seemed to me to be a distant backdrop… The hugeness of events outside is made miniscule by your mother slipping and falling in the bathroom.” There is a crushing intimacy to Pinto’s portrayal of madness — the writer’s own mother suffered from mental sickness — but his achievement is that he also succeeds in presenting a picture of the larger world.

For instance, there is the time the narrator has taken his mother once again to the hospital. They talk to a young man who has a complaint about his blood; he aspires to join the Indian military academy and has promised to write God’s name a hundred thousand times if he is successful. Em tells him she had a nervous breakdown, followed by a suicide attempt.

The young man seeks clarification: “You are mental, aunty?” The son is annoyed, but Em answers nearly cheerfully, “Yes, yes.”

And because we are in India, the young man now responds with an appeal for Em’s help in securing admission to the academy: “Oh good. My Buaji says God listens to the prayers of mentals because they are touched by His hand.” And Em says to her son, “How nice. You hear that, baba? I was touched by the hand of God. And I have a hotline to Him, according to this young man’s someone or the other. I will pray right now.”

The exchange continues in its own — I’m tempted to say — mad way. It is painful, poignant, and also quite funny. It makes the novel’s point: we live in a mad world — the boundaries between what we call sanity and insanity are blurred.

What is also striking about the above exchange is the intrusion of the narrator’s voice when he offers the following statement about Em’s questioning of her fellow patients: “Those who suffer from mental illness and those who suffer from the mental illness of someone they love grow accustomed to such invasions of their privacy.” This voice — the voice of nonfiction — makes its appearance again and again in Em and the Big Hoom: the young narrator finding an observational, nearly essayistic, tone that gives the prose the feel of a memoir and, on occasion, even an editorial. The overall effect in the novel can be patchy sometimes but it also gives the novelist the chance to offer a meta-commentary on memories and storytelling.

Consider the time when, early in the novel, Pinto’s narrator asks Em questions about her childhood so that he may alight upon an explanation, or at least an originating point, for her madness. Em’s family had left Rangoon after the Japanese attacked Burma during the Second World War. Em’s father had made the crossing from Rangoon to Assam on foot. By the time he arrived in Calcutta, his hair had turned from black to white. Em crossed the Bay of Bengal by ship. She didn’t remember much of the crossing except that “she used orange sweets to quell her nausea and began menstruating on board.” This detail nudges our narrator to turn reflective as if he were writing an essay: “Was this just how people remembered things, in patches and images, or was this the repression of a painful memory?”

During the crossing, the family’s piano had been thrown overboard to lighten the boat. The narrator believes this could be a good place to imagine the beginning of his mother’s breakdown. The pictures acquire in his mind a vivid, filmic intensity:

I imagined the dabbassh as the piano hit the water with, perhaps, a wail of notes. I imagined my mother weeping for the piano as it began to bubble its way to the bottom of the Bay of Bengal. I cut between her tears, the white handkerchief handed to her by her impatient mother, the plume of dust rising from the seabed, the tear-soaked face, the first curious fish…

But then he hears another family, also Roman Catholic Goans, speaking of its piano. And then yet others. The novelistic tone gives way to the essayistic. “The pianos were a metaphor, a tribal way of expressing loss. It did not matter if the pianos were real or had never existed. The story was their farewell to Rangoon. It expressed, also, their sense of being exiled home to Goa, to a poor present.” The paragraph continues in this vein, lyrical and dense, the past hollowed and then filled with analysis.

At such moments, the voice is reminiscent of the precocious narrator of Amitav Ghosh’s Shadowlines, a novel that many readers in the subcontinent read piously as a part of their college syllabi, not least because it is suffused with the light of retrospective understanding: books can also be like the jettisoned pianos. They grant us the opportunity to reinvent the past. In a novel like Shadowlines, the pain of a Hindu-Muslim riot, probably never experienced by the reader in real life, appears immediate; the trauma is freshened; but because the trauma is bound within a skillful narrative arc, and is always made sense of, the past is orderly, consoling, even beautiful. In other words, the past is never mere madness. It is pain seen in the bright light of literature.

It is to Jerry Pinto’s credit that in Em and the Big Hoom the reportorial voice finds its perfect apotheosis in a later chapter entitled “Electro-Convulsive Throppy.” Like Jonathan Franzen’s famous 2001 essay, “My Father’s Brain,” an autobiographical account of the effects of Alzheimer’s, this brief chapter is a report on madness and its criminal treatment. The writing is sharp. (“A crocodile of patients went past. They all looked alike in dirty grey white clothes and near-shaved heads.”) And the observations are set in a social context in a way that is always edifying. (“It occurred to me then that the mad in India are not the mentally ill, they are, simply, mad. They have no other identity.”) It helps that the story has a pedagogical framing — the narrator has been taken to the Thane Mental Hospital on a school trip. Against the complacent certainties of the teachers, and some of the students, are the narrator’s felt experiences. And yet, there is nothing to prepare the reader for the shock of the description that Pinto gives us of Em’s visit to the Staywell Clinic where, unknown to the family, she has received electro-convulsive therapy. The chapter exposes the violence through which what we consider normal is enforced. I’d recommend this novel for adoption on college courses for this chapter alone.

Kumar headshotAmitava Kumar is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb: A Writer’s Report on the Global War on Terror (2010), which was judged Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year in the Asian American Literary Awards. He is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College.

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