A review about a unique book!

Today's Bangalore mirror carried a review of a book.

The fractured self: The novel’s success lies in its characterisation of Catholics, suffering women and domineering men 

Eunice de Souza

Posted On Thursday, May 03, 2012 at 03:24:50 AM

The fractured self

In the book, shot through with almost unbearable pain, there are also scenes of pure comedy
I sometimes wonder why, given all that we see or read about, the word “family” continues to have a cosy sound. For many people, the family is as cosy as the stranglehold of an octopus. Families have been dysfunctional ever since Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve. But love, hate, fear, ambivalence, all form a bonding we can rarely escape.

Jerry Pinto’s first novel, Em and the big Hoom (Aleph Books 2012) explores the relationship between a mentally unstable mother, (variously diagnosed as schizophrenic, manic depressive, given to attempts to commit suicide), her two young children and their father. It’s tricky material to handle: the book is shot through with almost unbearable pain, but it’s far from being a soggy saga. It’s an extraordinary achievement, flawlessly written, variously textured, and full of convincing characters who don’t fit stereotypes about Catholics/suffering women/domineering men.

Em, the mother, sensitive, cultured, flamboyant, doesn’t evade the word ‘mad,’ nor do the children, though other children jeer at them. They want to know what she was like when she was “whole.” How did she meet their father? What jobs did she do? The narration moves with the questions, the answers she gives or chooses not to give, her endless cups of tea, the beedis she smokes, and her volatile moods. In a heartbreaking sentence which “sums up” the book, the narrator says, “She went up. She came down. She went up again. We snatched at her during the intervals.”

But again, the narrator can be ironic at his own expense: “Once, in a timid attempt to help, I took her hand in mine and sat with her. My motives were mixed. I wanted to help but I had also written the stage directions for myself: ‘Enter son, stage left. He looks at her for a moment and then goes and sits by her side. He takes her hand in his and offers her what consolation he can.’”

There are scenes of pure comedy. Before Em and Augustine are married, “two senior women, dressed in silk and magnificent Sunday hats” presented themselves at Augustine’s office. He had no idea who they were. One of the ladies said, “We are not in the habit of introducing ourselves…I suggest you ask Mr Andrade who works here with you to introduce us.” They have come to make sure Augustine is the right kind of man for Em, and to confess their own reduced circumstances: “Our circumstances are not what they once were,” says the elder woman. “Bertha was driven from her home in Burma by Herr Hitler. Very little was left.” “Our chemist shops,” Bertha adds. “And the this-thing.” “Teak plantation,” says Louisa. “She means the teak plantation.” “That’s what I was this-thing,” says Bertha. Louisa ignores her. “I see,” says Augustine, although he doesn’t. He hasn’t yet learnt his future mother-in-law’s conversational style.”

Dom Moraes wrote an account of his mentally unstable mother in his autobiography. It was harrowing. But to keep writing about such material in an entire novel is a different matter. There’s the danger of repetitiousness. But the characters themselves keep throwing up surprises. Em, for instance, was allowed to resign from her American Consulate job “when she started adding her own, and very alarming, comments to diplomatic reports. ‘Personal interpolations’, they called them. I loved that phrase and when I used it, aged eight or thereabouts, Em could still laugh though the joke was on her.”

Astonishingly for a Catholic lady of her time, she tells her future husband, in a letter, that she is afraid of sex, and that he should feel free to take a mistress. He replies, “Your body is yours to give or not. Should you decide not, I will respect that…Let me say, though, that I find all the signs most encouraging.”
Then I saw the interview with the author:
What was going through your mind as you approached the end of writing Em and the big Hoom? One of the good things about how the brain is wired is that we can forget pain. I love writing, I love the doing of it but it is also a business that is lonely, and there are no markers and signposts.

Em and the Big Hoom lived in a different time. How different would they have been in today’s day and age? I don’t know how different they could be. I believe the pharmacopoeia has advanced greatly and so perhaps a modern-day Em would have more choices. But India produces 22,000 doctors a year as opposed to 2,00,000 engineers from Maharashtra alone. How many of those 22,000 doctors will become psychiatrists? How many will work in small towns? How will you deal with a case of paranoid schizophrenia in a village that has no primary health care centre and where you might lose a baby from diarrhea every other month? What will happen to the man who loves the paranoid schizophrenic in that village? How will he cope with the decisions he must make?
Whatever else changes one thing will not: we will never be immune from the people we love. Their hurts will always make us ache more than our own. If that ceases to happen, we will lose our right to call ourselves human.

There is more to read:

I did a short term course on counselling a couple of years ago and while I do not counsel, it did help me to counsel myself. As I understood the technique, I knew that there was a story I could share about my mother in  a blog. I do not think there was a novel in there. It would have been a story of a demanding mother and a long suffering father.

It is no secret for the people who knew her, she would have been 95 now, that she was different!
As child  I did not even know that. But later as I saw other mothers,  I knew that something was missing. She was very strict and I would feel angry about it when I saw my friends and cousins had a much easier time. I think I just learned to blank out her bouts of hysteria. I could even guess when it would happen and steel myself to it. Those days were the toughest and some days were bad.

My older sister got married and left home, before the full impact of mother's personality had its repercussions on my life style. My younger sister and I never spoke about it, but coped. We  had formed a strong bond which helped us to deal with it.

But I was lucky, the whole family, my mother's elder sisters and my cousins, all enveloped me in a protective shield and I never felt isolated or left alone to fend for myself. There were also friends who understood and were equally supportive. They would all tell me, 'Yes she is outspoken and harsh, but she is good at heart.'  We, her children, also knew that she was fiercely protective of us and could be strong when needed.

Luckily for me, my father kicked me out! He spoke to a friend and I got a job in Pune. He was not the one to seek favors. Probably he understood that I needed to get out! My younger sister continued to live in Bangalore after her marriage and to her credit, she managed my mother extremely well and was of great support to my father .

It was years later I asked my father, he was 80 plus, also student of psychology, whether he knew how serious her problem was and whether he could have done it differently. I also congratulated him for sticking it out with my mother. He said that times were different and one did not go to  a mental hospital unless it was beyond one's control. (That is where the psychologists and psychiatrists were to be found.) And added 'I had to take care of my children' and smiled. I still remember his smile.

 It is also a pity, as my mother, who could be very charming, was capable and efficient, would have done much better, if she could have been treated today! She taught herself to speak and read Tamil and Hindi. She learnt to type and could manage English reasonably well and she was not even a matriculate! She could be a good friend and many would come and confide in her!

Why am I writing this? Reading a review about this book reminded me how in spite of everything we survived as a family and reasonably intact as people. It is more difficult now to take care of people who are different and are mentally challenged.

 The families are nuclear and cannot really take the full load of caring for such a person. The institutions in India are not able to cope with the volume that needs to be handled. There are a few organisations which give counselling free of charge. But it is a long route and many families cannot afford to give the time and effort it takes. I also remember the frustration of a  counselor who was successful in curing a patient and all that was required was a bit of support by the immediate family. It was not given and the patient slid back.

There are a few good stories. I did blog earlier about a success story due to one man's dedication.   
I recently spoke to Dr. Swarna, a cousin of Tara and she says that methods of treatment have changed, and there are quicker ways to heal a person and bring him/her back to the mainstream. It is her strong belief and  is entirely based on her experience that it is the way we need to go!


Raghunath said…
The crux of the matter is that individual peccadillos were accepted and respected. In addition the marital "for better or worse" was taken literally. Yes we have come a long way, but have we solved the problems? I am not sure!

Har Gopalan said…
I commend your chutzpa and, I am happy for you that a huge load is off your chest.


srinidhi said…
Hi Hari
Thanks. I just took a cue from the author. The issues had been resolved a long while ago.
This is more about what it could have been for 'amma' if she had recourse to today's medicine!

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