Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

em&hoomAuthor : Jerry Pinto

Publication Date : 1st April 2012

Publisher : Aleph Book Company

Awards :

2016 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for fiction (co-winner)

2016 Kendra Sahitya Akademi award – English


Firstly I should thank Amazon for bringing up this book every time I searched for  Indian writing . I would not have picked up this book were it not for Amazon’s persistence . I always believe in giving the credit where it is due 😉

The book is inspired by Jerry Pinto ‘ s own mother who suffered from bipolar disorder . In that sense , we can call it a fictional memoir . Wikipedia says that the first draft of the book was around 750 , 000 words – three times the length of War and Peace . I am astonished by that fact considering that the novel in my hand has only 235 pages . Wikipedia also says that Pinto initially wrote it as a memoir but due to the emotional toll on him , he rewrote the entire book as fiction . In his acknowledgements , when he thanks his friends who read the book at various stages of it’s life cycle , Pinto says :

” it [ the book ] had been in the making about 25 years , so that’s a lot of friends and lot of life

So , one can imagine the effort and the emotional investment that this book demanded .

Plot summary :

Em – as she is called by her children , is Imelda Mendes suffering from bipolar disorder and is often in the throes of the ‘ highs ‘ ( manic episodes ) and ‘ lows ‘ ( depressive episodes ) which characterize the illness . In her highs , she can be a witty conversationalist or recounting the story of how she met her children ‘ s  father whom she has nicknamed ‘ Angel Ears ‘ . There are other stranger – sounding names which she has given to the children ‘ s father whom them call Hoom  . The narrator takes us through their family ‘ s struggles with Em ‘ s illness until her death . When the book closes , the Mendes family is left at the threshold of starting a new life –   a life without Em . Em has been a presence in the family ( to put it mildly ) and this book gives us only a glimpse into the family ‘ s everyday experiences with the matriarch suffering from bipolar disorder .

My thoughts on the book :

The narrator is the unnamed son of Imelda who recounts their family saga in Em’s time and the stories of his parents’ childhood and courtship years which he had heard from his mother during one of the rare moments of lucid storytelling in her normally free – associating ramblings and her pre-bipolar-disorder letters . The narrator gives a glimpse of their home-life – about how the children and Hoom had to be in a constant high alert during her ‘ lows ‘ for any suicidal actions , about her eccentric episodes like the time when she took the 2 year old narrator and ran away from home / threw some things out on the street .

The narrator ‘ s voice is matter – of – fact as far as Em is concerned : he could be the next door neighbor who is narrating the drama unfolding in his neighbor ‘ s house due to his mad wife . But the tone takes an emphatic tone when it references his father who has taken a stoic approach to his wife’s illness and his sister Susan who is the primary caretaker of Em when she is at home . There is also his musings about how he coped with his mother ‘s illness and her sometimes sharp words quite often about how she became a Muddha following his birth .

Em ‘s writing was surprisingly very original – of course , it might have been the author ‘s words but still it was a unique voice . The prose is not too flowery but crisp and at the same time beautiful . When it comes to Em , it is sometimes cutting , sometimes witty and quite often amusing – she will be one of the most memorable characters in Indian literature for every reader who has read this book . There is probably the most heartbreaking moment in the book – both for Em and her children and definitely the reader :

She grinned , a silly grin . ‘ You were my two dividends , yes ? Don’t you forget that . ‘ 

Then she sighed , took a deep breath , and said , ‘ But what an investment . My life . ‘

I wonder whether Pinto viewed his fictional debut and it ‘s critical acclaim the same way as Imelda – that it did not merit the trauma of his childhood and youth . Perhaps , all the critical acclaim and the literary awards might offer some solace for the author .

We also get a good glimpse about the 1960s India – both socioeconomic and cultural . For the people who were young during that age , this might be a trip down the memory lane when the author gives a descriptions about a family from the ‘ dosa – thin ‘ middle class . There are also several references to the customs and culture from the Goan Catholic sect.

The observation which touched me was this :
The priest arrived , looking a bit bedraggled . He was served tea and began a rosary . Afterwards , he blessed the body and came and asked me if I wanted to speak . I had no idea what to say . I could have put the words together but then I had no idea whether I would be able to get through them . And I knew that if they were glib and born out of a need to impress , they would come back to haunt me . So we opted for a service that would in no way suggest how unique Em had been or how how powerful a force she had been in our lives . The ordinary words would cloak her remains in the normal . There would be no remainders of who she was and how different her life had been or how strange our grief was ” .

I wondered how many extraordinary / colorful lives of the ordinary people have been forgotten due to the selective memories of the family members . Once the person dies , they are relegated with other ‘ normal ‘ people and the family chooses to remember only the good things . Sometimes , the family even alters the characters of those people in their narratives to the next generation so that the next generation is left with an idea about the person that is the product of their ancestors’ terrific imaginations . Of course , there are a few exceptions , but from my personal experience , I have seen that people have a sort of aversion / fear for anything a bit out of the ordinary .

In that sense , Pinto ‘s work is laudable and this book will probably be a fitting tribute to his mother who lived her life in her own flawed terms to the fullest .

There are several such passages which I would love to put up here but I am refraining from doing so because I want you to pick up this title. This book is highly recommended from me . There are very few Indian authors I read and even fewer books about which I actually rave about . Em and The Big Hoom is one such book . If you are still apprehensive about picking up this book , I hope that Salman Rushdie ‘ s thoughts on the book will persuade you to pick up this book –

One of the very best books to come out of India in a long , long time

I would have loved to read the mammoth first draft too . Of course , we would not get it now . . . Until the next review then . . .

UPDATE : You can read Pinto ‘ s interview  for The New York Times .

An excerpt from the interview :

Q : Your book deals with Em’s, and by extension your mother’s, mental illness, in a time not so long ago when electroconvulsive therapy was still widely used. The erasure of memory and personality that stems from ECT is downright scary, in your book and otherwise. How is its continued use in India justified?

A: At one level, its continued use is very simple. In India , a person with mental illness has no rights at all. That’s a cultural premise of ours  . We see mentally ill people as either raging or withdrawn and suicidal. Their families will be heartbroken and passionately looking for a quick fix, and ECT is still offered as that option. In a place that used to subscribe to whippings or exorcisms as treatments for mental illness, ECT is not so much of a stretch. Most want the ill person to fit back into the family structure and not be a trouble at all.

What really is the bright light are small N.G.O.’s like the Banyan and the Umang Foundation, who, since mental illness is such a bleak terrain here, are getting invited to national consultations with the government to create better policy. Really, though, ECT is the mildest and gentlest thing that happens to the mentally ill. Who will take a mad woman’s claim of rape seriously? Who will take an ill child’s use and abuse by ministers seriously?

In India, we have low-hanging fruit of horror. Mentally ill people are easy to pluck. When my mother was taken to Ward 33, each time I would wonder what would actually happen to her. What claims of hers did I give credence to? What could we put down to just one more hallucination of hers, one more fantasy? In dealing with the mentally ill, there is never a shortage of moral crises like these, and I think ECT is a shortcut in a moral crisis.

For readers from India,  you can buy the book by clicking on the link below :

Em and The Big Hoom    [ This is an Amazon affiliate link ]

For readers from the US , you have the Kindle edition priced at $12.99 and the paperback priced at $19.06 .