Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto

About Jerry Pinto

Jerry Pinto is a writer of prose, poetry, and children’s fiction, in addition to being a journalist. Em and the Big Hoom, winner of the 2013 Crossword Book Award and the Hindu Literary Award, is his first novel. His collection of poems, Asylum and Other Poemsappeared in 2003. He has also co-edited Confronting Love (2005), a book of contemporary Indian love poetry in English. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies, including Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets and Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. He lives in Mumbai.

Em and the Big Hoom – A Summary

“I don’t know how to describe her depression except to say that it seemed like it was engrossing her. No, even that sounds like she had some choice in the matter. It was another reality from which she had no escape. It took up every inch of her. She had no time for love or hate, fatigue or hunger. She slept ravenously but it was a drugged sleep, probably dreamless sleep, sleep that gives back nothing.”

In an interview, Jerry Pinto shares that Em and the Big Hoom was the book that he began to write when he was around 16 but he wrote this specific version nearly 24 years later. The book takes us on a journey through a one bedroom apartment in Mahim where Imelda; Augustine; their daughter, Susan; and their son, the unnamed narrator of their story all lived. Em and the Big Hoom, were the nicknames with which the parents were referred to by their children. This non-linear story chronicles the life of the family from the time Imelda and Augustine began their romance to the family’s present day struggles with Em’s bipolar disorder and how it presented itself in their lives. The book’s tone and pace changes based on Em’s state of being. We move through the early years of Imelda and Augustine’s relationship with letters and diary entries. These give us glimpses into their life, Em’s early employment and her early years of motherhood. It also tells a story of love and support. The compassion between Em and the Big Hoom is moving, reminding us of any love story we may have witnessed. 

Through the book, we grow to know Em most intimately. Her thoughts, opinions on her illness, her sexuality, others illnesses – all shared openly and honestly to everyone. We see her go in and out of institutions and hospitals with an ease but also an awareness of the system. Her wisdom is seen in how she interacts with everybody there and for us as readers, we learn more about these hospitals through her visits.

Her son, the narrator, attempts to decode and understand her ‘madness’ as her carer. He writes: “Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes, and you are outside the dark tower again.” 

The book explores both the narrator’s anguish as well as his deep love for his mother. It explores our societal struggles with mental illness and how we use that to malign families and people. A stark reminder of the ways in which the stigma of mental illnesses continue. In a paragraph in the book, the narrator is torn by his emotions and is tired of having to be called “the son of a mad woman”. 

He writes: “I grew up being told that my mother had a nervous problem. Later, I was told it was a nervous breakdown. Then we had a diagnosis, for a brief while, she was said to be schizophrenic and was treated as one. And finally, everyone settled down to calling her manic depressive. Through it all, she had only one word for herself: mad. Mad? Mad is an everyday, ordinary word. It is compact. It fits into songs. As the old Hindi film song had it, M-A-D mane paagal. It can become a phrase, “Maddaw-what?” which began life as “Are you mad or what?”. It can be everything you choose it to be: a mad whirl, a mad idea, a mad March day, a mad heiress, a mad mad mad mad world, a mad passion, a mad hatter, a mad dog… But it is different when you have a mad mother. Then the word wakes up from time to time and blinks at you, eyes of fire. But only sometimes for we used the word casually ourselves, children of a mad mother. There is no automatic gift that arises out of such a circumstance. If sensitivity or gentleness came with such a genetic load, there would be no old people in mental homes.”

In this heart wrenching book, we discover mental illness, love and family through the words of Pinto as one that is painful, caring and intimate. We laugh with the Mendes family as we are taken along with their worries. Through Em and the Big Hoom, we are witness to a delightful, charming and human witness to the ways mental illnesses affect entire families but also the ways in which Em both holds the family together and disrupts it with her unpredictable state of being.

Excerpt: https://www.bookbrowse.com/excerpts/index.cfm/book_number/3102/em-and-the-big-hoom

Discussion themes:

  • What emerges from the book in terms of the identity of mentally ill people?
  • What do we understand about care and systems where care can be accessed in this country?
  • Through the narratives and caring for Em, we get a glimpse of the state of our hospitals and mental health care in this country. What stood out for you in these stories?
  • How do you understand or experience care and caring in your life and relationships?