Saturday, June 30, 2012


Em and The Big Hoom is the debut novel of the Bombay-based journalist and litterateur Jerry Pinto, who has his roots in the village of Moira. A well-known figure in the journalistic circles, it came as no surprise when the imminent publication of his novel was much talked about in the press and what is more, an excerpt from the book wasalso published by a very prominent publication. This novel has received rave reviews in the national press, with the Indian Express calling it “insanely good” and such celebrity writers like Amitav Ghosh and Kiran Desai giving a huge thumbs-up for it. Following the release of the novel Jerry Pinto was featured in major national dailies, giving many interviews and never once failing to charm us by his wit and depth of thought. So when so much good stuff has been in the air about a novel that everybody says is good, I opened Em and The Big Hoom with a lot of premeditated ideas.
            The title of the book is at once enigmatic. It gives nothing away: the fact that it deals with a mentally ill protagonist, Imelda or Em and her dutiful and devoted husband Augustine or The Big Hoom. The couple has two children, Susan and a son: the narrator of the novel who curiously remains unnamed. The Narrator (let’s call him that) is on a quest to learn about the genesis of his mother’s illness; what was it that triggered it in the first place and why was his father standing rock-solid besides his mother despite everything. He tries to understand his mother and at the same time come to terms with his mother’s mental illness. Telling this story then becomes an act of catharsis for the Narrator. The novel describes the family, with all its eccentricities, laughter and tragedy.
            Jerry Pinto in his novel has tried to see the humane side of a Goan Catholic working-class family battling with mental illness. The family is dysfunctional. They live in a crowded and chaotic city – Bombay; in a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen flat. The Narrator has to endure these pressures, all the while dealing with his own adolescence as he ekes out a living for himself. Along with the story of his parents, the Narrator also tells about his frustrations, hopes and fears.
            This novel is dark and brutally honest, yet it is told with lively humour and has a host of colourful characters. Em is a lady who smokes a lot of beedis, has frequent bouts of mania and depression, and who tries many times to kill herself. She doesn’t hesitate to talk about her sex life with her children, much to the discomfort of the Narrator! The Big Hoom on the other hand, is a reserved person who is the rock of the family while Susan, the daughter, appears to be playing a less significant role. The Narrator has to construct the story from scratch as the details that he seeks have to be patiently obtained from Em. He has the daunting task of sifting through the enormous amounts of notes and letters that Em wrote, for she had this habit of jotting her musings and thoughts down on paper.
Jerry Pinto has written a delightful novel and there is no doubt about it. For a topic as serious as this, one breezes through the pages with effortless ease. His lilting prose provides this space for empathizing with the Mendes’ of Mahim, who are battling with mental illness in their family. The portrayal of the Catholic family is unlike the stereotypical rubbish that the film industry has been churning out over the years, and one that the rest of this country believes to be true. And since we are on the topic, novels like Em and The Big Hoom and Savia Viegas’ Let me tell you about Quinta, which are published by ‘big’ publishers, could go a long way in changing this perception about the Goan Catholic.
The novel also raises a few issues about the idea of motherhood. Em loves her children but she seems to be against the idea of motherhood. For she says that she didn’t wanted to be a “mudh-dha” [her inflected version of mother] and that she would be stuck “being someone whose definition isn’t even herself.” The portrayal of Em is not the regular romanticized, ever-loving-ever-giving mother but a more nuanced and a complex one. The son on the other hand seems to be torn between his love and duty towards his mother and trying to find his own independence and space away from his mentally ill mother. He also fears that his mother’s mental illness might be transmitted to him through the “genes”. Perhaps this is why the Narrator tries so hard to understand his mother and take care of her.
Jerry Pinto also attempts to paint a picture of the grind that mentally ill patients and their families have to go through: how patients are treated in hospitals as well as the attitudes of the doctors and society. Although there was space for a damning indictment of how the system operated during the times the novel was set in, Jerry Pinto does not channel much of his attention in this direction. Caste is briefly discussed in the novel, but the references are fleeting. The attitudes towards mental illness and the protagonist from a caste-based perspective could have been elaborated, especially when there are moments, brief ones they may be, when Jerry tries to suggest caste inequalities, but stops short for some reason. Although Jerry describes emotions and the suicide attempts by Em in raw detail, the dearth of descriptions of those cramped places (the setting for the novel) in which the people – and particularly the working-class – of Bombay negotiate their lives on a daily basis could have enriched the reading experience.
Jerry Pinto went through a grueling process of 27 drafts over a period of 25 years and this novel is worth every minute of your time. How one understands this book would be one’s own way to appreciate it. This is a novel that one has to connect or understand on a very personal level. Em and The Big Hoom will stay with me for quite some time.

Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company), 2012; pp. 235, Rs. 495/- [ISBN: 978-81-923280-2-7]

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: June 30, 2012)

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