It’s early morning at the Breach Candy Hospital, where a motley group is waiting outside the OPD. Imelda Mendes, who is sitting with her son, starts chatting with a morose young man who can’t make it to the National Defence Academy because he has albumen in his urine. Imelda graciously promises to pray for him, after which the conversation turns to her health problems:
“What about you, aunty?”
“I had a nervous breakdown and tried…”
I began to hiss a little at such a promiscuous revelation.
“Don’t mind my son. He’s shy. I tried to kill myself so I have to take pills and they have to examine my blood.”
“You are mental, aunty?” I bristled but my mother didn’t seem to mind.
“Oh good. My Buaji says God listens to the prayers of mentals because they are touched by His hand.”
Imelda Mendes is Em, the protagonist of Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto’s debut novel about mental illness and the havoc it wreaks on a middle-class Mumbai family. Em swings between spells of dark, suicidal terrors and periods of manic garrulity during which she chain-smokes Ganesh Chaap beedis and talks rudely about sex. The Big Hoom is her patient and supportive husband. The narrator of this wonderfully funny-sad novel is her son.
Em is clearly no cuddly mummy – and the narrator and his sister Susan respond to the situation with a mix of resentment, “helpless, corroded love” and startling matter-of-factness. “I used to tell my mother that I would put her in a novel one day, and she would say, ‘I should like to see the day’. Sadly, she didn’t,” said Pinto, whose mother died 15 years ago. “The book is fiction, but strongly autobiographical. Partly, I wrote it to lay ghosts to rest.”
All of which makes it incredible that the novel manages to skirt melodrama and weighty pronouncements, while allowing absurdity to intrude into the most frightening situations. But then Pinto has long been a master of the only-in-Mumbai moment. For the last 25 years, he’s been a familiar figure in newspaper corridors and media classrooms – the person to call for an instant masterpiece on the quirks of Mumbai’s bus commuters, for a quick treatise on the difference between kumquats and mangosteens, or even for a laugh-till-your-tummy-hurts rendition of “Lochinvar” on a slow news day.
The huge laugh and effortless witticisms, however, concealed a heartbreaking reality. Pinto’s mother suffered from a mental illness that made life unpredictable and expensive. Pinto started giving maths tuitions at the age of 16. “Seven days a week, nine hours a day,” he recalled. “I had to earn R700 a day to pay for my mother’s nurses.”
Nevertheless, Pinto had already plunged into a somewhat unorthodox writing career at the age of 12— handwriting Mills and Boons on demand for his sister and her friends. “They found the regular Mills and Boon heroines too spineless,” says Pinto. “So I was instructed to write books with spineful heroines.” Little wonder, then, that at 21, when his friend insisted that he try writing for a newspaper, he dashed off 14 amusing pieces. MidDay accepted 12. Before long, the Jerry Pinto byline could be spotted in magazines and newspapers across the city. Not to mention an array of pseudonyms including Monica Ghosh, Shahrukh Raiszada, Couch Potato, The Dilettante, AC Timothy, John Maria and Ivan Mendes. “On one Sunday, the last three names contributed 28 pieces to The Free Press Journal,” Pinto recalled with a chuckle. “They used to call it The Free Press Jerry.”
Even while he was getting on with his high-energy life – teaching quadratic equations, filling columns of newsprint, starting a travel dotcom, serving as consulting editor for a men’s magazine and writing other books – Pinto started planning a novel about his family. “I used to tell stories about my extended family,” said Jerry, “about the triplets born with their heads attached; or about two brothers, one of whom killed the other and then blinked for the rest of his life; or about the man who staged his own death because he was terrified that the Portuguese were still watching him.” Friends were always urging him to write a book about these delicious eccentrics, he said. “I started writing the stories down 20 years ago.”
Then five years ago, when he turned 40, Pinto “decided it was time to stop the foreplay and get down to the act”. He quit his job to start on his “big, baroque saga of the Roman Catholic Goan comprador-class, Portuguesespeaking, shabby-genteel, screwed up family”. For three years Pinto wrote 1,000 words a day. “It was the first thing I did after getting up,” he said. “Even before I brushed my teeth. I just kept writing forward, putting the words down. On a good day it took me an hour; on the worst days it was 4pm before I brushed my teeth.”
At the end of three tortured years, Pinto had 700,000 words. He gave himself a six-month break during which he watched world cinema and revelled in the freedom of brushing his teeth at will. Then he revisited his handwritten manuscript. “I found 600,000 words of absolute crap; unadulterated doggy-do,” he said. “But 50,000 words seem to work, and those finally were my novel. The passages that had emotional integrity were those about the four of us. Once I realised that, the rest was jam.”
Many rewrites later, Pinto achieved a compact novel about a Catholic family living in Mahim– where he grew up and continues to live – in their “small flat in a city of small flats”. Sparkling Imelda and dashing Augustine are happy together. But then one day, after the children are born, a tap opens in Imelda’s mind and “a little black drip started inside her”. Soon Em is spending long spells in Ward 33 (Psychiatric) of Sir JJ Hospital and the family lose the blessed ability to live a humdrum life; to be free of the thick red mist that intermittently pervades their world. “Home was what I wanted to flee,” admitted the narrator, even as he tries to trace his parents’ history and seek glimpses of his mother “when she was whole”.
Once Em and the Big Hoom acquired shape, Pinto showed it to his sister whose only comment was: “Too many commas.” Taking that as a go-ahead, he sent it off to his longtime editor Ravi Singh.
Given that 15 books – including biographies, collections of poems and anthologies – already carry Pinto’s name, does this intensely personal novel hold a special place? “I committed five years of my life to it,” he answered. “Once it was done I felt a great lightness of spirit. I felt I could do anything: bounce off walls, write a crime novel, a romance novel, anything. I was finally free of a big responsibility.” Bouncing off walls apart, Pinto has flung himself into a gazillion projects – he’s researching the cultural history of Bombay between 1950 and 1980; he’s planning to work with a friend towards translating the works of Sant Tukaram; he’s editing the selected works of poet Adil Jussawalla. “And, of course, I have started on my next novel,” he said with his trademark guffaw. “I have written 300,000 words. Which means I probably have 12 usable words at the moment.”
By Shabnam Minwalla on April 13 2012 9.26am
Photos by Amit Chakarvarty