Jerry Pinto is the author of Em and the Big Hoom (winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize, the Hindu Literary Prize and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction) and Helen: The Lift and Times of an H-Bomb (winner of the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema). His other works include Asylum, a book of poems; and translations (from Marathi) of Daya Pawar's autobiography Baluta, Sachin Kundalkar's novel Cobalt Blue and Vandana Mishra's memoir I, the Salt Doll. He has also edited several anthologies, including Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (with Naresh Fernandes).
MY MOTHER WAS bipolar. It began when I was born. For the next thirty-six years, she would make several attempts to kill herself. Of this material, I crafted a novel, Em and the Big Hoorn, published by Ravi Singh in 2012. At one of the first readings that followed, a journalist whom I had thought of as a friend stood up and asked, `Don't you feel guilty that you used your mother and her life to craft this beautiful book?
Somehow I got through the moment and the rest of the evening without tears or rage, and I thought the toughest part was behind me.
But of course I was being optimistic.
Over the next few months, the readings I did went well enough, but the question-and-answer sessions that followed left me wondering what I had unleashed. 'I don't know what happens,' I said to a colleague, 'but these readings seem to become encounter groups. The last one had this woman who began to talk about how her family had locked her brother in his room for five years because he claimed that God was talking to him. It was only much later that they realized what was going on and got him psychiatric help.'
My colleague smiled and I had the uncomfortable feeling that she thought I was boasting.
`I often don't know how to handle it,' I added. 'I'm not equipped to.'
Perhaps all you have to do is listen,' she said.
A few days later, she wrote me a mail in which she suggested that I gather such stories and edit them, and create 'a book of light'—her words—which would illuminate these areas of darkness in the Indian middle- class family.
That evening, Parvana Boga Noorani called me and told me that she had tracked down my number through some friends because she had read Em... and it had reminded her of her journey with her own mother. We had so much in common, we discovered. The same hurts and vulnerabilities, the same fears, the same psychiatric wards, the same scramble to secure the new pills, the same desperate wish, sometimes, to be rid of it all. I asked Parvana if she would write and I took it as a good omen that she agreed, and so the first piece for A Book of Light began to take shape.
Over the next couple of years, I emailed many people who I knew had lived with similar afflictions of a loved one. I knew it was difficult ground; sometimes I was cutting close to the bone. Often, I had found out about the 'problem' when, in despair, I had been consulted about it. This would happen even before Em... was published, because I had always tried to be as open as possible about the fact that my mother had bipolar disorder. I had made a commitment to myself and to her and to our bond that it should be no more than saying 'My mother has diabetes', because it was all a matter of the wrong chemicals, an imbalance in the blood, a misfiring of neurons. If this sounds too much like some version of biological determinism, too easy a formulation, I can only say that we must all build our own defences against what causes us grief, and this was mine.
Some people I spoke to told me memorable stories. An uncle, a doctor, who was bipolar but who had moved to Australia and into a small community where he was much loved and the entire town worked with him so that he could continue to practice. A grandmother who was lovely and wild and told bizarre stories that have haunted the creative impulses of her grand-daughters. A family with a brother and a sister who were both afflicted and both needed hospitalization... But these stories you will not find in the collection. One of them was short-circuited by the youngest generation of the family who did not want their grandfather's mental illness made public. The second was abandoned because the woman who wanted to tell it found that no one in the family would cooperate, so she was left with only the wisps of her own memories of her grandmother. The third story began well, but then the person writing it stopped responding to emails.
I realized this was their defence against what memory can bring back, what grief can do, and I tried to be respectful of their decision. Others refused outright. I don't blame them, either. We have to shape our own stories and we do this as much by what we say as by what we do not say. And as author of the story of my life, it is only I who can decide what I am comfortable with and what I am not.
And so even in the editing of these stories, I have walked with care. Some of these people are my friends. They have held me riveted with their accounts of being chased by siblings with axes, of running blindly through fields to stop a mother from jumping into a well. Sometimes the pieces they wrote would lack some of these details. I would think: 'You told me of the time your father went after your sister with a meat cleaver. Do you want to put that in?' But I would ask only where I thought the relationship could bear the strain of my reminding them of what I had been told—often people are shocked at what they have revealed; or perhaps even more shocked that it has been remembered.
I have great respect for those who have told their stories here. They carry their torches bravely, shedding light on the dark areas of pain and guilt and utter helplessness. For it was in the family that these dramas of the mind were played out. In fiction and in cinema, we read of how people retreat into the family when they are hurt. There they are surrounded by love and warmth and they can lick their wounds in peace. But what if it is your mother who is wounding you and then soothing you by turns? What if it is your father who seems distant or desolate, living in a dark tower that you cannot enter? What if the Sturm and Drang is in the home? Where then is your refuge?
In some senses, of course, the 'normal home' is a myth. As the locus of all the most intense dramas of our lives, how can it ever be normal? Here are people who know us best; they know without being told what they must shield us from, and they know, when they wish to hurt us, where the chinks in our armour are. We all know that if we look hard enough, we'll see that the family is a human institution and therefore flawed. We have all thought 'What could I do without you?' as often as we have thought 'What am I going to do about you?'
But what of the family where all attention must suddenly be focused on one person who is suffering? What of the family where someone commits suicide and leaves behind a vacuum, a space that seems to mock every attempt at love and holding on? What of the family which must institutionalize one of its members? How does it manage?
Item Code: NAQ444 Author: Jerry Pinto Cover: HARDCOVER Edition: 2016 Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd. ISBN: 9789386050175 Language: English Size: 8.50 X 5.50 inch Pages: 175 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 0.2 Kg