Em for Imelda, P for Poignancy and Pinto

I cannot recall the first time the name Jerry Pinto captured my attention. Back in high-school days, I had asked the paperwallah to deliver Sunday Times — because I wanted to improve my language, and English reading (yes, believe it or not, back then the now much maligned TOI, and especially its Sunday edition, with glossy yet quality supplement, was pretty much a big deal). Problem was, the paper would be delivered Sunday afternoon, as it would be printed only in Mumbai back then (explaining its quality, my Mumbaikar wife may add), and by the time it reached my hometown, it was half a day gone. And yet, I would wait with anticipation for the afternoon delivery — my only other window back then to the ‘other’ world (apart from the iconic The World This Week — from the same NDTV productions that’s enjoying the same fate of empty success).

em-and-the-big-hoomJerry Pinto, was pretty much a part of that other world. The world that I did not share with my peers, and neighbors. And although I don’t recall when I got hooked on to his articles, I recall one particular article that I had (yes — we used to do that in those days) cut-up and filed in one of my binders. Sadly the binder’s lost now, and so is the article (and I tried googling but alas, I still haven’t found it). In it, Pinto shred to pieces two of the biggest bollywood hits of the time DDLJ and HAHK. Hang on. Not for they being meaningless entertainment, but because they seemed to be harbingers of (and I may be off the mark on this, this is 18 years or so back memory) an age that had renounced rebellion for conformity. Okay, maybe that’s what I read from the article, because that’s pretty much what I wanted to read from it, but that’s not the point. Pinto had become one of my idols.

A decade or so later he released his funny rejoinder to Shobha De’s Surviving Men, unsurprisingly named: Surviving Women, and I promptly bought it. It kind of disappointed me, mainly because I expected so much out of Pinto that I wanted even a jestful rejoinder to read like a masterpiece.

I was probably hoping to read something he was to write another decade later. Incidentally,  Pinto had been writing that book for those two decades. When it was finally published, I was just delaying picking it up, because I did not want to be disappointed.

Quite the contrary. I’m knocked out cold.

Em and Big Hoom is, for the lack of better word, poignant. It deals with an extremely sensitive issue (in India at any rate, then, and I suspect even now) surprisingly keeping away emotions like pity, melodrama, and replacing them with empathy (So may be Em is for empathy after all). It a tightrope walk done with such masterful certainty that you don’t even seem to know while you are watching it, that it is a tightrope walk.

For there is so much in the material (inspired to some level, by author’s personal life — which makes it even more difficult to handle with dexterity) that any lesser writer would not have managed to give in to the temptation of going for the low hanging fruits of tragic pity, melancholy, and the whole spectrum. But Jerry picks up a two-edged weapon instead — humor.

Yes, while dealing with the world of a boy whose mother has mental illness (bipolar disease/schizophrenia), Jerry manages to tell the story with compassion, wit, and some laugh out loud humor. And it works. For humor disarms the reader — something that the best humorist always knew. But Jerry doesn’t use it to disarm and stab, rather to soothe and heal, and make it possible to go on, at all.

And then there are passages that read like poems, quotes that make you want to plaster the book with yellow post-its (just as I have), and cry laughing, or just cry out loud. There are characters that instantly make a home in your mind, and with no real plan to move out anytime soon. There is so much (in it) in fact, that I’m certain to miss listing much of it.

I loved the word hypothesis. It sounded adult and beautifully alien. I had never heard anything like it before. I wanted more words like it. I felt, instinctively, that when you had enough words like hypothesis, you would be able to deal with the world. I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to deal with the world. It seemed too big and demanding and there wasn’t a fixed syllabus.

Most of the great lines go to Imelda, the bipolar mother of the narrator, a character so alive that you would never look at those with mental illnesses the same way again.

That’s what comes of all this celibacy business. We confess to men who’ve never had to worry about a family. Naturally, it’s a huge sin to them, this abortion business. What do they know? They probably think it’s fun and games. Let them try it.

Then there is that sub-theme (really?) of faith, in God primarily, but not entirely.

“I lost my faith as an hourglass loses sand. There was no breaking moment but one day I found myself reading the Gospel without a twinge. I had always hated the Gospels because they had unhappy endings, all four of them. They seemed rushed stories. He’s born. He grows up. He preaches. He cures. He saves. All this is in the course of a few chapters. And then that Thursday and Friday, the horror of his foreknowledge, the last desperate plea to be permitted to elude this ordeal, the abandonment by friends who cannot keep vigil with him, the humiliation of his nakedness, the pain of the scourgings and the crown of thorns, the mocking crowds , the crying women, the cross, the crucifixion and even  the last request — ‘I thirst’ — denied. I had always felt genuine distress at all this. I could not bear to read it, could not bear to put it down. It was the pain of empathy, the sorrow that this should happen to anyone. That pain vanished one day [SNIP]. I remember being vaguely relieved and slightly guilty. I did not even realize at that moment tha tI had lost my faith. What I had left was a syrupy sentimentality and an aesthetic appreciation of the Gregorian chant, the form of the fasting Buddha, and a love of stories. This is the standard equipment of the neo-atheist: eager to allow other people to believe, unwilling to proselytize to his own world which seems bleaker without God but easier to accept.

But being an atheist offers a terrible problem. There is nothing you can do with the feeling that the world has done you wrong or that you, in turn, have hurt someone.

And then there are gems like:

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.

Some of the paragraphs are pure poetry. Just rearrange the punctuation and you have the most beautiful poetry.

‘Fight you genes’
the Big Hoom said to us
once.

He did not explain
he did not know
how to;
but we knew what
it meant.

It meant that we were
to march into the hall
and take out our school books
and reproduce the slipper-shaped
animalcule
whose pseudopodia
power it through the world
without feeling

To learn how to
inscribe a hexagon into
a circle
without tearing the paper;
to assimilate the causes and consequences
of the battle of Panipat
without ever identifying
your own enemy

Because that would mean
identifying yourself.

‘Fight your genes’
focus.
be diligent.
concentrate.
Do.

Yes. this is a difficult book to write. Hell, it’s a difficult book even to read. Structurally it’s brilliant too. Narration is absolute perfection. 

And there is empathy. And honesty. And poignancy that would flood you over.

Then he dashed off. This was The City, India’s biggest, a huge city, but people heard and responded to what was happening in your life. Sometimes, this much was enough.

Maybe it always is. Maybe not. But Jerry Pinto has done more than enough in one book to deserve unreserved praise. This is one book all of us got to read.

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