I had been dying to read this book since it first came out because: 1. It got really great reviews 2. It’s not often that I come across contemporary literature in English about my exact community.
And it more than lived up to my expectations. In the first place, the book is beautifully designed. I ordered a paperback, and had no expectations about how it would look but it turns out the pages have red edges (which weirdly added some value to my life) and there’s an interesting graphic mark at the beginning of each chapter. I’m not sure if all editions of the book have this cover, but I would want this exact one in hardcover.
The book is ostensibly about life with a mentally ill mother, and I did have expectations of doom and gloom. In fact, had the milieu of the book – the Goan Catholic community – not attracted me, I’d have given it a miss based on my assumption that the book would make me cry.
Well, Pinto pulls of the marvelous feat that is the hallmark of a lot of great works of art which is making you laugh through what should have been depressing events – in this case, literal depression. Let’s just say I laughed – out loud even – a lot, and only occasionally did I choke up.
The central character of the book is Em, the narrator’s mentally ill mother. It must not have been easy growing up with such a mother, and Pinto does describe the horror of it, but one comes away almost envious. Because Em is such a marvelous character, so erudite, with such sharp insights and turns of phrase.*
The book is a tribute to a mother, but also a love story. And this is the part I loved the most – the forays into the courtshop of Em and The Big Hoom, the throwback to the time that she was not mad and then the moments of gentleness when she is, particularly at the end.
There are also insights into being mentally ill itself, in so much as the writer can convey something he has not experienced and only heard described, as well as the treatment of the mentally ill at the time. But somehow this is the background, it does not overwhelm.
The book was reviewed in The Guardian just the day I finished it. The reviewer says this:
Apart from when he experiences grief (in by far the best section of the book), the narrator never comes forward, instead explaining things that don’t require explanation.
It made me mad. Not Em-mad, just angry. Who decides what needs explanation? Why do we need explanations? Funny the reviewer didn’t ask herself after reading a book about madness, the very state of which raises such questions. Why does the narrator need to explain and reveal himself? This book is not about the narrator. It’s about Em. Ouff! The egocentricity of reviewers. I want this. Thus the book should give me this. Okay, even I have expectations of books that I get cross about being denied, but 10 pages into the book should have told the reviewer that this is not a book about “living the lives of these people at the same time as they were living them” in a Bombay and that it’s perfectly fine, more than fine in fact, that it’s not.
Okay, now I have written a review of the review. Ignore the review, read the book.
*It also makes me feel better about the kind of mother I am. I am not a conventional mother by any standards. I read too much. I say odd things to my kids. I have screaming fights with their father in front of them (which I am working on not doing). I sing and roll on the floor, sometimes at the same time. I have weird hair. I paint my face, and theirs. I let them play with my leftover make-up, and sometimes dabble in the existing lotions and potions. I veer towards gender neutral parenting and living. I let them watch the iPad so I can zone out. I grudge them bites of my chocolate. Etc. Now I’m thinking I should have had them call me something older than “mummy” to signify these aberrations.