Authors’ Note: While Em and the Big Hoom is a novel, it is based on fact. In an interview, Pinto says that “the book is 95% fact and 95% fiction”. He has left room for the readers to interpret the book the way they want. Consequently, we decided to write about how we interpret this book: as a memoir and as a novel.
As a memoir – Dishani Vora
Em and the Big Hoom is an intimate portrayal of Jerry Pinto’s family and his early life. It deals with the struggles of his mother with bipolar disorder and builds a narrative using anecdotes, diary entries, and letters.
Jerry’s writing unfolds in the same way he speaks – at 100 miles an hour, revealing singular stories every minute. At times it seems as if he can’t contain the stories he has to tell. He often digresses, lest he omits another one. However, these detours aren’t without promise. Each anecdote is as delightful as the last. Surprisingly, in his book Em and the Big Hoom that is exactly how he describes his mother’s parlance.
Even though the book addresses his mother’s mental illness, Pinto makes it possible for us to see past it to find a vivacious woman. Suffering from mental illness in India dehumanises a person. But Jerry’s curiosity and compassion lend a moving portrait to people who’re often seen as a burden by their own families.
We often lead our entire lives in a sort of a trance without having really known our family members. We’re too busy to see them as individuals and not just our parents or siblings. But Jerry’s conversations with his mother reveal the kind of character intricacies and idiosyncrasies that we rarely observe in our daily lives.
The conversations are frank and uncensored. Both parties inflict damage inadvertently with words. These slights are at times forgiven. And at times, we can only hope that they are. There are feelings of guilt, envy, doubt, anger, and sorrow. With no pretence of stoicism to elicit praise, Jerry is honest in his feelings of despair.
On one such instance, he talks about the difficulty of being a man in India, of knowing what to do and when. This is as universal as it is enduring and touches a chord. Haven’t we all at some point of time in life felt stumped in the face of the responsibilities that adulthood brings? The book also provides a peek into the bygone era of post-independent India, with stories of moving and being stranded in a new city, economic challenges, and dating.
Moreover, for me, the heart of the book was Jerry’s father – a standard Indian rock-solid-man. However, what was different was his love and devotion to his family. It was touching to read about an Indian man who took care of his wife, looked after his children, and stood by his family. We have a dearth of such role models. And in Em and the Big Hoom he gives us hope in the face of a bleak sea of fish.
As a novel – Pratichi Sadavrati
This story revolves around the Mendes’, a dysfunctional Christian family in Mahim, Bombay. They live in a small apartment, almost always filled with bidi smoke and mainly love that the members have for each other despite the odds. Due to Imelda’s (Em’s) depressive-mania, the family never gets a chance to be ‘normal’. Em’s phases are either filled with extreme highs that make her harshly blunt and witty at the same time or they make her want to kill herself. There barely seems to be a middle ground.
The narrator: The son’s thoughts have been made realistic beautifully. Despite the love he has for Em, he even considers killing her once as it was hard for him to take the ‘crazy’ anymore. He desperately wants to feel how it would be to have a normal life. A life where he could, for once focus on himself and not his mother. Pinto has also subtly added the pertinent fear the son has of getting mad himself as the disorder could be genetically passed. Throughout the book, he is shown to seek the answer to his mother’s illness in her diary entries and in the letters exchanged between his parents. But he never does.
Jerry Pinto has captured mental illness like a poem that is painful and beautiful and intimate at the same time. I believe it was only possible because he has been through it himself. His mother suffered from the same illness and his time and energy were spent on dealing with her. He, in an interview, said.
It was supposed to cure me, this novel. It was supposed to help me deal with what I had just learned was called a ‘skewed family’. I wanted a way to scream my rage at the world and its injustices, silly prat that I was. I wrote this version of it, the one you are reading, nearly twenty-four years later when I had managed to rid myself of many of those notions of art-as-cure and art-as-therapy. Now I just wanted to write a novel.
Em And The Big Hoom is extremely persuasive and makes you empathize with what is going on. Believe me, you will feel the pain. But there will also be moments when you will laugh, and the pain will ease.
To read more from Mid-Week M.E.L.A., click here.