Home is where your mother is. But what if she’s mad? That’s the reality facing a teenage son in this mordant debut about a troubled Indian family.
Opening scene: Ward 33 (Psychiatric). The unnamed narrator, in his late teens, is visiting his mother, Em; his father, unaccountably, is the Big Hoom. (The childhood names have stuck.) Em is in the hospital every few months. How did it all begin? She was fine giving birth to his big sister, Susan, but after the boy, postpartum depression ballooned into manic-depressive disorder, with a streak of paranoia. Then the suicide attempts began. The second one was especially rough on the kids; they discovered her in the bathroom, swimming in blood. When Em is in a manic phase, her conversation is wild, raunchy, funny and malicious as she free-associates. “A rough, rude, roistering woman,” says her son. Rather than mother and son, they are two equals sparring, the son interrogating her with a prosecutor’s sharpness. He has his reasons; his greatest fear is that he’ll inherit her madness. Their conversations are the heart of the novel. Susan and the Big Hoom are sidelined. The latter is the perfect foil to Em: The straight man, stiff upper lip, solid as a rock but dull; Em has sucked up all the oxygen. Even the son gets short shrift as the schoolboy, presto changeo, becomes a journalist. Pinto could also have provided more context. Flashbacks to the couple’s life before Em’s breakdown are poorly integrated. The family lives in Bombay in a miserably cramped apartment, though the Big Hoom makes good money as a salesman; their social class and ethnicity are left fuzzy.
More clarity would have been welcome. Em’s a star, but she can’t support a whole novel.