THE SMELL OF HOME
Franz Kafka wrote a short, power-packed story called“Metamorphosis” in 1915 about a young manwho turns into a large cockroach (or dung beetle – according to whose translation you get). His parents and sister are horrified and then saddened, then ashamed and disgusted. The son dies a victim of their hatred and … neglect. It was the caregivers that had metamorphosed, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not. More recent writers haveanalysed the effects on families when a member is diagnosed with AIDS –families that carry the burden of survival amidst despair, penury and helplessness.Economic, physical and mental devastation storms through most terminal illnesses: Cancer,Leprosy, TB (till recently), and themodern-day phenomena linked with aging: Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. There’s mental retardation/disorder of various types – congenital and post-traumatic; and AIDS and STD with its element of “shame”, and then there is alcoholism with the inevitable humiliation and disease, filthand poverty – and police interference.
That’s as far as detached analysis goes. What happens when the warmth of the arms you ran into as a child, the love and the protection that was so much “home” suddenly disappear into eyes that have gone vacant, voices that are silenced or become disturbingly harsh and offensive, and hands … well, hands that might strangle? When the amygdala spurs you to “flight” because there is no scope of a “fight” here? Suddenly, in your teens, it is you who are forced to become the love-giver, the pillar of strength….that you long for. And you long to end it all, one way or another – the next instant you feel guilty about the very thought. And when “it” does end, one way or the other, how do you distance yourself – if that is possible?Jerry Pinto aroused all those questions, emotions and more in his “Em and The Big Hoom”. With the present selection of tales he explores the various ways in which other people try to cope – and survive; thirteen stories of people with whom he found the “same hurts and vulnerabilities”, each with their own distancing devices (including the use of pseudonyms), all challenging, terrifying, demanding of them all that they had, and then some.
To start with, there is the Kafkaesque “Papa, Elsewhere” by Sukant Deepak, told with dark humour as the son keeps an iron rod under his bed – in case the father returns; Sharmila Joshi’s “The Man Under TheStaircase” tells of the callousness of a judge towards his alcoholic brother – as told by the judge’s daughter.Mercifully, the other stories tell of compassion, deep angst, a longing for “freedom” mixed with irrepressible love and devotionwhich is inexplicable – stories of mental illness or disturbance, some compounded with cancer, suicide. Each story highlights the deep connectedness that keeps us together as families, as human beings; where the ties that bind us are seen to go much deeper than any vows of being together in sickness and in health etc.Each situation seeks to explore the relationships which deepen with time and patience (the word “patience” incidentally comes from the Latin word for “suffering”). Whether the reader has gone through a similar experience or not, there is a strong tendency towards mental depression by the time one has finished reading the stories.NirupamaDutt in her story “Mothers and Daughters”, speaks of the “clumsy kindness” of friends and relatives; these stories may make you a little more clumsy. Patricia Mukhim (Daniella) wonders if the family needs to see a therapist – through it and after it all – as the memories linger. Lalita Iyer (Roger, Over and Out) has a puddle of rainwater to remember, something that surpassed Sir Walter Raleigh’s chivalry; others remember the humour and the happy moments; Shashi Baliga (Anna) recalls her father’s moral compass. Most, like Ina Puri and Patricia Mukhim, are troubled by a multitude of questions. What did I do that I shouldn’t have? What did I not do that I ought to have? How did I not notice this or that? I wonder, asks Ina Puri, whether all he needed was someone to open a window somewhere and throw him a blanket; was that someone supposed to be me? And Sharmila Joshi (The Man Under the Staircase) is haunted by the sketches made by the abandoned, alcoholic uncle in her primary school notebook wheredark neem trees cast merciful shadows across the street. The pages of the notebook are frayed – the memory is not.
In this collection Jerry Pinto takes an audacious leap into the dark gloomy insides of troubled souls – and their next of kin who are no less troubled. Perhaps, when Donald Maconochie had said in The Craft of the Short Story, (1936) that “Every story must inevitably be a mirror of the soul of the writer,” he couldn’t have seriously meant the sort of stories included in the volume under review. It appears though that Jerry Pinto and the contributors to the volume have taken Maconochie’s advice in its true spirit – leaving the reader feeling raw in the soul or heart or mind or wherever it is that one’s emotions get churned. If, like Maugham, the reader believes that “Reading must be primarily a pleasure, not a chore; that all literature is escapist,”this is the wrong book to read.The dark gloomy clouds will drench the reader to the skin and beyond, relentlessly.