Author: Jerry Pinto
Genre: Contemporary/Literary fiction
No. of Pages: 240
Publisher/Imprint: Aleph book company
Published on: February 12, 2013
My Rating : ★★★★★/5 (5)
Format in which I read: Paperback
Set in Bombay during the last decades of the twentieth century, Em and The Big Hoom tells the compelling story of the Mendeses mother, father, daughter and son. Between Em, the beedi – smoking, hyperactive mother, driven frequently to hospital by her mania and failed suicide attempts, and The Big Hoom, the rock-solid, dependable father, trying to hold things together as best he can, they are an extraordinary family.
Filled with endearing and eccentric characters, and marked by sparkling dialogue and restrained emotion, this is one of the most powerful and moving novels to be published in India in a long time.
If I had to describe this book in the barest sense, I’d say this is an account of the life of a family where the lady of the household is severely mentally ill, presented through lush writing, which is a delight to read; but then I wouldn’t be doing justice to the book by saying just that because Em and the Big Hoom was so much more.
Narrated through the eyes of the son who remains unnamed, this account comprises, not just of his own memories and experiences with Imelda aka Em but we also get glimpses of Em and Augustine – The Big Hoom’s life before they were married and before she was afflicted by her illness (which is not pinpointed but rather hinted at to be a cocktail of post-partum depression/manic depression/Bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia). Letting the reader in on Em’s past was a brilliant touch, because the Em we get to see in the present is depressed, suicidal, manic, witty in a caustic, corrosive way, mean, and just plain nasty. She swears in front her children, she says the damndest things, things you wouldn’t expect to hear from a middle-aged, Roman Catholic mother of two. You don’t know which part of it is her and which part is her illness. I thought the fact that we see the narrator also struggling to differentiate his mother from her illness at several instances was important.
“Victories evanesce quickly enough. Failure hangs around you like a cloak and everyone is kind and pretends not to see it.
In fact, this entire book is his pursuit to unravel the mystery that is Em. He tries to talk to her about her past, scrambles to find any writings he could find from that time: her annotations in old books, her diary entries, her letters to various people including Augustine aka The Big Hoom…He never stops searching for the woman whom she was before the illness struck and also the triggers that could have possibly caused her illness to strike. Then again, mental illness is not such a cut and dry thing, is it? It does not manifest itself suddenly like….I don’t know, the common cold. The narrator would learn that the hard way.
“I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to deal with the world. It seemed too big and demanding and there wasn’t a fixed syllabus.”
Em and Augustine may be the titular characters but the narrative also offers a peek into how an average middle class Roman Catholic family lived in Bombay in the late-20th century. There were glimpses of how the typical Goan RC society operated at that time, which was entirely new to me; I found that part of it refreshing. I think in almost all the books I’ve read with mental illness at its core, the story was narrated through the affected person themselves. Never have I ever read an outside perspective on how it is to live with someone who is affected, and how damaging it can be when the said person is your own mother. Although the narrator spends much time trying to explore Em’s past and connect the dots to her present, we also get to see his own insecurities, rage, grief, and anxieties. Not just that, we also get snatches of his sister Susan, and the father The Big Hoom’s personalities. Despite the limited scope of the first-person POV and the small size of the book, I felt like the characters we were presented with were well-rounded. Kudos to Jerry Pinto for pulling that off.
“There was something capricious about God. How could one expect perfect submission from those who are imperfect? How could one create desire and then expect everyone to pull the plug on it? And if God were capricious, then God was imperfect. If God were imperfect, God was not God.”
The writing itself deserves a special mention: I can’t remember the last time I highlighted so many lines in a book! It was lush, lyrical, beautiful, real, and just absolute delight of a prose. It kept me turning the pages, ravenous for more. The narrator is one of most relatable and real characters I’ve read in the recent times. Notably, I also found some of Em’s ravings….I mean, opinions highly relatable. I’ll let you be the judge of what to make of that. 😀
“I didn’t go to bookshops to buy. That’s a little bourgeois. I went because they were civilized places. It made me happy there were people who sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote and there were other people who devoted their lives to making those words into books. It was lovely. Like standing in the middle of civilization.”
A word of caution, this book contains some mildly graphic details of Em’s suicide attempts.
As of now, I’m unable to think of anything that I didn’t like about the book, so I’m giving it 5 stars. If you’ve read this and felt differently about it, I’d love to discuss! 🙂