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Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

A haunting paean to a maddening mother

Jerry Pinto’s debut novel is wonderfully crafted, witty and wry, both homage and lament. A poignant rendition of a family coming to terms with affliction, writes Prayaag Akbar.

Jerry Pinto

he unreliable narrator is something of a commonplace in contemporary fiction. No other art form is as suited to this manner of storytelling, though film has a notable claim (Rashomon and The Usual Suspects spring to mind). Done well in a novel it is fascinating: a world is carefully composed, yet the window we have been given to look upon it is suspect. We decide as we read if the window is of the right shape and size to look upon this world, if the glass is murky or clean – we debate the whys and wherefores of every elision and inclusion. It informs us that the act of narration – whether in fiction or nonfiction – is deeply political, transcribed by the limits of the narrator's imagination, scripted by the nature of her understanding.

There are various kinds of unreliable narrators, sometimes mad, sometimes motivated, sometimes forgetful. The British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has built a stellar body of work exploring how the mind reshapes the past in a manner concordant with its owner's self-image and desires. In a 1987 essay on this topic, Salman Rushdie makes the distinction between "literal" and "remembered" truth. As he writes, "one of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false."

It is arguable whether Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto's impressive first novel, has this unreliable narrator. But Pinto sets up the story in such a way that we must search for the "literal" truth through three overlapping narrative filters – layers of complexity, if you will. This is the story of a two-parent-two-kid Goan Catholic family told in the words of the son. The son, however, seeks to relate the story of his parents, so he must rely on his parents' memories, and the information they are willing to share with him. Already we are two steps away from how events might actually have unfolded in this fictional world. Atop these lies the filter that is potentially decisive, and Pinto makes note of it time and again as he writes – the woman who delineates most of the action in the book is seriously mentally ill.

It is interesting, if this kind of thing interests you, to think about why Pinto chose to write his first novel this way. Perhaps it is because he is writing about debilitating mental illness, the inner processes of which remain largely unknown despite much scientific advance. Yet juxtaposed against this narrative ambiguity is that this is the story of the author's family, especially his mother's struggle with a serious neurological condition. There are some fictional departures, but we know that the Em of the title is his mother, the Big Hoom is his father, Pinto is the narrator, Roger Mendes, and his sister is Susan. The reader knows Pinto has lived this ordeal, and she must rely on the authority this lends if at times she questions something about the events depicted. For instance: at one point I found a little dissonant some words the narrator puts in his mother's mouth – after all, depicting madness must be immensely tricky. It was then that I found myself thinking, "but he's the one who's been through this. He knows."

This is a marvellous debut, sentitive, livened by crystal cut prose and Pinto's trademark mordant humour. This is the best Indian novel in years.

f I have been thoroughly confusing until now, it is no fault of the book. Em and the Big Hoom is a marvellous debut, sensitive, livened by crystal cut prose and Pinto's trademark mordant humour. Also impressive is his ear for dialogue: his representation of the Goan Catholic dialect is well-weighted, not overbaked in the manner of Irvine Welsh or Gautam Malkani (Londonstani). This is the best Indian novel in years.

Like most good novels, Pinto examines through a minute spectrum some of humanity's great concerns. He is especially interested in the nature of love, both romantic and familial. Throughout I was reminded of the Freudian concept of ambivalence, which holds that love will be underpinned by hate, and vice versa, that they are two ends of the same spectrum. For much of the novel the three Mendeses are patient and tolerant as their mother subjects them to the most horrific tribulations – if Pinto is harsh on any of the three it is Roger, who is, of course, a proxy for himself. We learn of Roger's ambivalence (in the Freudian sense) towards his mother right at the start, and he delves into this hatred-affection frequently and unsparingly. And he shows how this extends, in varying hues, to the entire family, from grandmother to sister. Even the saintly Big Hoom slips, giving vent to his anger after his wife jeopardises the future of their children.

The Big Hoom is a curious character himself. He only came to life for me halfway through, when he tells Roger the story of how he came to live in Bombay. Before that he looms over the family and the narrative, the pater paragon, self-sacrificing and knowing but decidedly inanimate. Yet Pinto's decision to keep him away from the action works very well; when we do get to know him the nature of his understated love resonates even more.

I could not help but compare Em and the Big Hoom to another novel about madness, Nabokov's Lolita. In many ways, they are completely different. Nabokov uses verdant prose and the rolling landscapes of the United States to parallel Humbert Humbert's unravelling mind. Pinto's novel, on the other hand, is spare, both in prose and scope. It is a novel about confinement: Em's confinement in her mind echoes Roger's confinement in a 1BHK in Mahim. Yet both writers manage to show how closely sanity and madness stride together in each of us.

We accept little madnesses in those we love most. We accept their quirks, their peccadilloes, the unkindness they toss our way. We even come to know and cherish all the idiosyncrasies that only intimacy can irrigate. Ultimately, this is a story about that kind of love.

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