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Book Review: Em and the Big Hoom


A family less ordinary
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | New Delhi, July 6, 2012 10:03
Tags : Em and the Big Hoom book review | Jerry Pinto |

When mental illness creeps up on a member of a small family, how are the lives intertwined with the fate of the stricken individual impacted? And what is it that goes on inside the mind of a patient battling neurosis? The answer assumes varied tonalities in Mumbai-based Jerry Pinto’s first novel, which paints a vivid, poignant portrait of a Roman Catholic Goan family with a hole in its heart.

Em and the Big Hoom isn’t a wide angle Mumbai novel. It isn’t Maximum City or Love and Longing in Bombay. It is a son’s intimate and moving account of growing up in a middle class home in Mahim with a loving and irrepressible mother (Em to her children) susceptible to “terrifying manic rages”.  

Grasp the crippling anguish that is part of the lives of the unnamed narrator, his elder sister Susan and father Augustine Mendes (the Big Hoom of the title) and you will probably never again look at a manic depressive in quite the tactless, insensitive manner in which India’s mental care system – care is hardly the right word here – still does and gets away with.  

The autobiographical elements in this novel are barely disguised. But the heart-wrenching narrative about a boy negotiating the challenges of coping on a daily basis with a mentally unstable mother isn’t a certified memoir. 
The writer is omnipresent in the story, but he exercises the kind of restraint one would expect from an observer looking in from the outside. Apart from making the novel refreshingly unsentimental yet emotionally gripping, this reality-cloaked-in-fiction device lends both immediacy and melancholia to the tale.  

The narrator of Em and the Big Hoom (it has emerged from extensive rewrites by the author over two decades) pieces together an episodic but finely chiselled tale from stray fragments of information contained in his mother’s letters and diaries and extracted from his sporadic, diatonic conversations with her.

He writes: “Imagine you are walking in a pleasant meadow with someone you love, your mother. It’s warm, and there’s just enough of a breeze to cool you… The world continues to be idyllic and inviting for you but your mother is being sucked into the centre of the earth. She makes it worse by smiling bravely...”

The reader also learns: “Conversations with Em could be like wandering in a town you had never seen before, where every path you took might change course midway and take you with it. You had to keep finding your way back to the main street...”

The narrator’s adolescent years are a desperate struggle to make sense of what is happening to his mother and to assess the sheer enormity of the rock-steady presence of his unflappable engineer-father.

Em is the centre of this universe. “Every fact, every bit of information had to be scanned. Sometimes it was exhausting to listen to her because she seemed to be throwing out clues faster than I could absorb them.”

“I did not know what we were as a family,” goes one passage. “I only knew that something was wrong with all of us and that it had something to do with my mother and her nerves.” Nerves, Big Hoom tells the boy, are like wires: they carry electric current.

That is the image that sticks to his mind until Em herself gives him another while lying in Ward 33 of Sir JJ Hospital. “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,” the mother explains to him.

The fact that “there was no drain” makes matters worse. He asks: So is that why Em tried to kill herself so often? “Every time she had tried to kill herself she had opened her body and let her blood flow out. Was that the drain…?” 

But this novel is not only about a one-time steno-typist and her family. It is a story of courtship, marriage and raising a family in 1950s and 1960s India and of surviving as a middle class couple in the pre-economic liberalisation decades. “Imelda and Augustine were part of dosa-thin middle class of the 1960s.” But they were “improbably happy” despite their world being “clearly vulnerable, as if everyone was walking a tightrope over a smoking volcano”.

The novel is also about growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, of the fading memories of a family’s eventful past, and of the therapeutic power of reading and writing. Em was an inveterate writer. “She wrote when she was with us. She wrote when no one was around.” And her son, on his part, makes a confession: “In my late teens, prey to all kinds of inadequacies, I embarked on a programme of remedial reading.” Follow his lead.

Author: Jerry Pinto

Edition: Hardback

ISBN: 978-81-923280-2-7

Pages: 235

Price: Rs.  Rs 495

Publisher: Aleph

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017