During the course of this book, certain events in my family, made it an all the more relevant and poignant read. I first picked it up because I had read some good reviews and because the title seemed so reminiscent of Dr. Seuss! It held promise and boy did it deliver!
Written from a son’s perspective, the book tells the story of Em, his mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Pinto describes Em’s condition – her symptoms, with great accuracy and depth. The frightening highs of her mania and the oppressive darkness of her depression are all narrated through her son’s perspective and the language and conflicting emotions are spot on. As Em battles her disease and swings relentlessly from highs to lows to highs, the family, rally around her and each other, as best they can, to form what can best be described as a care-giving task force. They feed her endless cups of tea, listen to her incessant manic chatter, tolerate her dark, overwhelming depression and rush her to hospital every time she tries to take her life. Her chaotic life is in effect theirs, and they crave, especially the children, a ‘normal’ routine, devoid of incessant drama.
Pinto allows for some method to her madness and we see her character unfold through conversations with her children and the letters that they find. She is revealed as a young migrant from Burma, a survivor, thwarted from pursuing her education because of poverty, and a dutiful daughter silently shouldering the burden of supporting her family. She seems in all ways a normal young woman of her time, and yet even early on, rather unconventional in her thoughts & actions on occasion. She has no qualms for example, writing to her fiance about the fact that she isn’t too keen on sex, and asking him whether that would be a deal breaker for the marriage! Pretty radical for the times she lived in! She’s intriguing, endearing, and frustrating all at once – to us and to her son, who oscillates between love and hatred just as she does. He fears for his sanity and yet cherishes her eccentricities, he wants to be rid of her but cannot contemplate the reality of a life without her presence, he wants to emulate his father but lacks confidence in his own abilities, he wants freedom from the constant upheavals that are their life and can only imagine what ‘normal’ will feel like.
The story is tenderly told even when Em is at her sneering, hurtful, manic best. The narrative isn’t sequential, but is still an easy read, moving seamlessly from past to present, from letters to conversations. Pinto handles his characters with a gentle humor & understanding that is warm and reassuring even when the tale is dark. Also, his descriptions of the Goan ethos are wonderfully pithy and authentic, be it the people or their way of life, their attitudes and expectations of themselves and of others. Ultimately this is a story about family, about strength, courage and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. I do wish there was more of The Hoom though. His stoic, rock-solid presence throughout the narrative lends it a backbone, much like his. So although we get to know his roots, we’re never quite sure of his feelings about his wife’s illness. That he is devoted and caring is obvious but not much else. Pinto leaves him a mystery of sorts, perhaps intentionally, to add to his aura. It works.
Here is a passage that I like from early on in the book,
“There may have been a time when we called her something ordinary like Mummy, or Ma, but I don’t remember. She was Em, and our father, sometimes, was The Big Hoom. On certain days we called her Doogles, or The Horse, or other such names that sprang from some subterranean source and vanished equally quickly. Otherwise, she was Em, and most of the time she was Em with an exclamation mark.”
And here is another,
“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.”
This is a great read, especially for those dealing with mental illness in the family. In a strange and bizarre co-incidence it found me at a time when I could truly relate to it on a personal level. The author mentions in his note that it took 25 years for him to write this book…it’s certainly well worth the labor! ‘Em’ is unforgettable and so is her story.