First published:- 2012
The tragedy of words like 'touching' and 'poignant' is that they have become hackneyed to the point they only give rise to skepticism if one spots them in a blurb. And yet I can't think of word choices more apt at the moment.
After having had nothing but disdain for the present crop of Indian Dan Brown wannabes and writers of mythological retellings and nauseating romances riddled with blatant sexism, featuring terminally ill fiancees and 'hot girl on campus' and what other pathetic genre tropes have you, my faith in contemporary Indian literature (sans the Kiran & Anita Desais, Amitav Ghoshs, Vikram Seths, and Arundhati Roys) has been revived all thanks to this critically acclaimed gem of a novel. Rejoice Indian readers! Do not abandon hope ye all.
It comes as a blessing when your mind is still fresh from the tvshow-esque humor of White Teeth and you are confronted with a good instance of the kind of tragicomic family drama you consider free of any intent of providing amusement at the cost of insidious disparagement. 'Em and the Big Hoom', which is only but a few modifications away from being the story of my growing years, is suffused with the kind of humor which delineates the comedy of quotidian life while attempting to pare down its tragedies.
For a country whose pop culture validates the use of the word'mad' as an excuse for dehumanizing the psychologically unwell, here's an author who cuts through the bullshit of stereotypes, accepted misconceptions, and whatever it is that sets the cash registers ringing and keeps us stuck in the dark ages, and creates an endearing, true to life portrait of a Goanese, Roman Catholic family in the Bombay of 70s-80s. A family of four ensconced in a love for each other as much as an acute distrust for life's caprices. An unusual but not dysfunctional family conjured from reality and not the fantasy of Bollywood-ish tear-inducing schmaltziness.
The bumbling, manic depressive, bipolar disorder-afflicted, suicidal, terrifying and fascinating matriarch Imelda, called Em by her offsprings, is the centre of this family with her dreadful mood swings, her chain-smoking of cheap beedis and addiction to countless cups of tea, and her capability of antagonizing and praising her children in the same sentence. Em is loved, feared and despised in equal measure while Augustine aka the Big Hoom is the reliable better half of volatile Em, the father with the stolid outer facade, a 'paragon' of patience, the iron wall which refuses to be shaken even in the most distressing of circumstances.
"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. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again."
The young narrator, who unravels the mysteries of his mother's life, takes the reader on a journey through Bombay of the last few decades, its socio-cultural quirks, the hilarity of Imelda and Augustine's courtship years, their unspoken, enduring love for each other, and the family's bitter battle with Em's post-partum depression.
There's something to be said for a book which makes you tear up and laugh at the same time. And I am not exaggerating or making a good use of rhetoric in this context.
For those of you, like me, adequately suspicious of blurbs, you can take those words of high praise from Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh at face value here. For this one at least you can more than suspend your disbelief.
Also published on Goodreads and Amazon.