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Jerry And The Big M (Madness)
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The novel is less a plotted story and more a study in how it feels to live with a close one's madness, how it drives you up the wall. The movement in the book is towards the revelation of the history of the family: how Em, the mother, met the Big Hoom, the father. How the narrator and family suffer: Em's Catholic upbringing and the guilt of her pseudo abortions, her suicide attempts, her nervous breakdowns, the disruption of rhythms of medication. Alongside is woven the thread of how the narrator, the son, fears he would ‘fight the genes', prevent himself from going mad. The novel is also about relationships: Em with her son whom she trusts immensely, even with her medication, and Em with the Big Hoom, whom she both fears and respects.
Unlike most sufferers, Em calls herself mad, has some insight into her condition, but does not give or is unable to give any access to others into herself. As the narrator tells us, this extreme behavior is not about madness alone. Or perhaps madness is characterised by her lack of sympathy towards herself and towards others. The doctors keep changing the labels of her illness thus showing how it is almost impossible to know madness. A writer can show you how it feels like to be close to the illness, how to understand its working. Pinto does that.
Pinto weaves the book around three strands: the dialogue between the mother and son, the mother's diary and letters, the son's thoughts and ruminations. Of these, the dialogues are brilliant. They are both tragic-comic and so discursive (yet tightly handled by the writer) that I wish someday Jerry translates them into a play. The brilliance shines right from the beginning, drawing the reader into the walls of the 420 square feet flat. As many mentally ill people, among other subjects, Em too talks a lot about sex. In this case, the son joins her, thus lifting the taboo from the subject:
Mad people don't want sex. They kick the sex drive out of you with those pills. No, even before the pills. There's so much in your head that you can't bear any distractions, you want to pay attention, careful attention, otherwise everything is going to explode. Or something like that. It's like being in a dream where you can do something and every time you try to get it right, you find that the action has shifted to another place and you have to start again. There were times I didn't want sex for months…
The problem for the caregiver in situations of mental illness is one of getting access to the mind of the sufferer. Jerry brilliantly uses Em's diary to give us a peek into her interior monologue. But, part of the problem with the mentally ill is of concentration, the inability for sustained narrative. I feel the portrayal of Em's inner functioning would have been enhanced if the letters and diary entries quoted in the novel had been a little more fragmented, a little more broken.
The narrator's own ruminations and his relationship with Susan, his sister, the Big Hoom, and the depiction of the Goan culture, Bombay life in the 50s and 60s, is an added layer to the narrative. It also connects the reader to the narrator, brings the abnormal home, and shows how the Big Hoom is a stoic, gentleman. In a particularly poignant exchange he asks the narrator, what if Em had got diabetes? This is where the narrator's fears play out; this is where he learns of how to make some sense of all that is absurd in his life. This is also the space where the narrator balances the show versus tell. There are times Jerry tells, but given the empathetic tone he builds up, it does carry conviction.
The mental health space is also fraught with many political positions. Most of the stances are to do with extreme treatments. While it is a fact that it is very difficult to take a sufferer's consent for a line of treatment, the effect of some of them on a family can be harrowing. Em goes through one such treatment and the tone of the novel changes —from being a terror against madness to being a terror against the system.
Em and the Big Hoom shows us the dexterity of language and emotion. It shows us a world we hide away from even ourselves and in that it attacks the stigma around mental illness. There is so little writing that comes up in this field — especially from a caregiver's perspective — that Jerry Pinto deserves our applause for his courage in articulating the story.
Amandeep Sandhu is the author of Sepia Leaves, a novel about a family living under the shadow of schizophrenia. His forthcoming novel is Roll of Honour from Rupa & Co.