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 .

A Writer’s gotta write first…

There is one Indian author whom I have been following very closely for anything except his writing. The man is not confined to writing bestsellers alone- he is a reputed columnist who writes very insightful articles on any niche,a screenplay writer for some of the highest box-office-grossing movies in Bollywood ( Hollywood,you have missed out a great talent…) whom The New York Times identified as ” the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history” in 2008. Perhaps,that might be true – but are his works really noteworthy? If you are not familiar with Indian writing,I ‘ll tell it straight-Chetan Bhagat.

           First Point Someone was really good for a debut novel-the narrative style, the rib-tickling  wry humor (courtesy Ryan) were instant hit with  the audience ( particularly the youth) and Chetan Bhagat  became a voice of the youth and most importantly, for the youth .Most importantly,it portrayed the failings in the Indian Education System that was prevalent even in the premier institutes of the nation like IIT. Being an alumnus of one such institutions,the narrative voiced the disappointment which he probably felt during his Under Grad years and he did it in a very entertaining way with his prime characters-Alok Gupta and Hari Kumar when Hari says “ So, we’re not just five-point somethings anymore, we are five point somebodies. ” when they manage to get a job finally.

So,when 2 States came out,this time Chetan Bhagat’s strategy became very apparent. I should say that he is a man who  should know very well that ” Successful people do not necessarily do extraordinary things-they do ordinary things  in an extraordinary way”. When you tell a regular campus love story with all drama in Bollywood style with all the drama thrown in  with a happily-ever-after ending, the masala factor became the crowd puller rather than the writing. Yeah, it was a fun read again only for his tongue-in-cheek narrative and humor. But, I had learnt to not expect much and had designated Chetan’s books for a light read during 6 hour train journeys.

When a picked up my last Chetan Bhagat novel, I remember thinking about The Three Mistakes Of my Life after finishing it

  • Picking up a Chetan Bhagat book again
  • Sitting through a plot-line that does not resonate with the political climate ( set in Gujarat during the earthquake and later communal riots in 2002 ). If at all anything,I was mentally making note of n number things that went wrong that were too jarring.Let’s say I became a better reader and ever better at picking up books
  • Still giving a place for Chetan Bhagat’s books in my bookshelf- Five Point Someone can stay.The others are going to the second hand book-dealer very soon.

He became a pioneer of a new kind of storytelling. Several other motivated Indian youth joined the bandwagon of this breed of storytellers who believed that stories need everything else-the masala factor, very creative and intriguing names like this one( Of course I love you..!Till I Find SomeOne Better, Now That You’re Rich Lets Fall in Love– this guy can give starters tips on how he comes up with such titles that gets the reader hooked even before he/she take a read at the plot summary) , a narrative that borders more on the type of fantasy genre with the most improbable locations and situations) .

When finally One Indian Girl came out,Chetan Bhagat marketed it aggressively on social media.But,when the book became epic disaster( finally, the average Indian had learnt to choose better as Chetan Bhagat was touted to be the one who made them read English books…Duh!! ). Have a look as the Indian twitterati trolled him and its too spot on and hilarious to miss out. Click on this link- Just for laughs

When people become staunch advocates for these writers saying that they made the average Indian to pick up English books,I have only one thing to say to them-

Indians’ contribution to the English literature did not start with Chetan Bhagat or the others. It started way back during the independence struggle only with Rabindranath Tagore, R.K.Narayan. For a better idea, have a look at this Wikipedia article. I am planning to check out one or two myself.

I should say that Chetan Bhagat was working all the while for making his entry into Bollywood as a screenplay writer. I can say whole-heartedly that he fits the bill for a screenplay writer better.If his books were dishing out only What Young India Wants ,the movie adaptations of each of his books tapped into that talent more. And his works do not count as any contribution to English literature.These books can be seen as some recent contributions to the English literature

A Train To Pakistan-Khushwant Singh(I know this is not a recent one but I loved this book )

 The God Of Small Things-Arundhathi Roy

The White Tiger-Arvind Adiga

Ibis trilogy-Amitav Ghosh

The Inheritance of Loss-Kiran Desai

Midnight’s Children-Salman Rushdie(still in my TBR list)

So,that brings up another question -if the book is not in English, does it’s literary value diminish? Will that book not gain widespread recognition that generally comes with English? The answer is a straight NO. Have a look at the list below –

The Millennium trilogy(Swedish) – Stieg Larsson

The Alchemist (and every other title by the same author in Portuguese) – Paulo Coelho

The Dinner (Dutch) – Herman Koch.

For more  click here.The more I google,the more number of whole new lists keep coming up.

When it comes to India, there are several languages and only very few epic works have got the privilege of reaching a wider audience (especially the regional works capturing the society and the political scenario in the background during the independence movements) . Sometimes, translation would prove to be a lesser substitute as the dialect of the regional language which gives the distinct style cannot be captured in a foreign language. For Indian readers check out this link  for some must-read translations.

When I was reading Michael’s post, the words “A scorpion’s gotta sting, a writer’s gotta write.” brought Chetan Bhagat instantly to my mind and this post.Thanks Michael for giving me a title for the post. If I might add, write  something worthwhile first . Probably he should have a paper with these words pasted just above his writing desk. He might be an alumnus of IIM-A but now you are a writer, you should know better that all the marketing gimmicks would not help if your story relies heavily on everything else except a good plot-line. He had done it previously and gotten away with it but this time, his marketing backfired in an epic way.

Lastly, to quote the man himself –“ I think half the trees in the world are felled to make up the IIT entrance exam guides. Most of them are crap ” Just substitute IIT entrance exam guides for Chetan’s books. Just can’t resist taking a parting shot 🙂