Having read this book a few months ago (and loving it), I thought of revisiting it again, just to see if I’d missed some things. And I found so much more than I had initially understood! If you’re someone who can’t tolerate spoilers, please stop reading here!
If we say it is just the story about a boy and his manic depressed mother, it would be wrong. It is much more than that. It is the love story of Augustine and Imelda Mendes; the Big Hoom and Em. It is the story of a young woman who grapples with a new life, which hasn’t gone according to her wishes.
I do not remember the last time I read such a heart-wrenching story, which surprisingly didn’t leave me in tears. I might have torn up in between, a tear here or there; but when I had finished reading it, I felt cleansed. It was cathartic to read Imelda’s story of ‘madness’.
The story starts with a letter to ‘Angel Ears’ aka Augustine, from Imelda. It indicates that they’re still in their courtship period, and he is away someplace; as she asks him to send a proper letter, or she would “throw you to the lions”. Then it cuts to where they presently are – Ward 33 of the Psychiatric at Sir JJ Hospital, Bombay. As the plot progresses, we come to know that this hospital room is an integral part of Imelda’s life.
‘Baba’, as the narrator is referred to in the novel, is shown through various phases of his life. Having witnessed his mother’s erratic behaviour since the beginning, he puts her story together from the few bits and pieces which he obtains from different sources – his parents’ letters, his memory, and his mother herself. In the process he grows in character. Imelda tells him, that till his birth, all was well with her.
“After you were born, someone turned on a tap. At first it was only a drip, a black drip, and I felt it as sadness. I had felt sad before… who hasn’t? I knew what it was like. But I didn’t know that it would come like that, for no reason. I lived with it for weeks.”
Here, Imelda recounts her first suicide attempt. She had jumped in front of a bus, but survived the impact. The narrator speculates that ‘draining the blood’ helps his mother clear her head. This would be the first of many times that his mother tried to end her life.
It is noteworthy that even after she attempts killing herself many times, the narrator stands by her. Even though in between, he wants to lead a normal family life, he stays with his ‘mad’ mother.
“If there was one thing I feared as I was growing up . . .
No, that’s stupid. I feared hundreds of things: the dark, the death of my father, the possibility that I might rejoice the death of my mother, sums involving vernier calipers, groups of schoolboys with nothing much to do, death by drowning.
But of all these, I feared the most the possibility that I might go mad too.”
Augustine Mendes, Imelda’s husband is shown as the pillar of the family. His is the strength that keeps the family together in tough times. His resilience wavers only a few times, once when he finds out that Imelda gave money from an ‘emergency’ account to her mother; and when she finally finds a release from her state and dies, we see his fragile side, as he breaks down in front of his son. Augustine’s character is not explored in detail, even though he’s one of the lead characters in the novel. His humble beginnings and his life thereafter are sparingly mentioned. Without a doubt, the whole book revolves around Imelda.
Many factors might have resulted in Imelda’s madness, however pinpointing them is a tricky job. Through the narrator, we come to know of many things in her life which had a fair amount of impact on her psyche – her relationship with her parents, who were solely dependent on her for money; her friend Gertrude’s affair with a married man; Em’s love affair and subsequent marriage with Augustine; how she had to give up her dream of studying in college because of money problems, it could be anything which pushed her off the edge. The madness results in pain for her and her family. Although however sad her state was, her life had happy parts as well. Her love for Augustine, their colourful courtship details, added levity to the otherwise grim story.
On the whole, the book reads just like the way Imelda talks to her son; it breaks away to a different topic midway, and is brought back by the narrator. It doesn’t begin from Imelda’s entry into the world, but from the arrival of the depression in her life; and ends when she takes it with her in death. The events that take place around and after her death add a sense of finality to her existence. She goes away not by herself, but by ‘god’s will’. Her family’s life becomes normal after her departure from the story.
The book leaves a profound impact on the thinking about mental illness and its effect on the people who suffer from it, and also those who live with such individuals.
A story about two children who watch their mother’s mental state deteriorate; of a husband who doesn’t let go of his wife till the very end; Em and the Big Hoom explains the uncertainty of mental illness perfectly – it may not have a reason, it just happens.