Tear up in one eye

Annie Samson
Saturday, 23 February 2019

Jerry Pinto’s fiction novel Em and the Big Hoom is a sad story no doubt. But it makes you crack up at some of the lines

Em and the Big Hoom vividly sketches out the story of a middle-class Indian family with a mentally ill member. In the fiction published by Aleph Book Company, Jerry Pinto has used an unnamed narrator and brilliant humour to unravel the story of Imelda Mendes known as ‘Em’ to her children who have to deal with her frequent mania and wish to die. 

Along with their father Augustine, called ‘The Big Hoom’, they live in a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen in their ‘city of small flats’ Mumbai house. They learn to confront personal and societal pressures, stigma et all interspersed with frequent hospital visits and changes in medication. The story is set in Mumbai but basically the issues it is dealing with are the same everywhere. It essentially asks the question — how to try and love someone who is different? It might as well be set in London or New York or Jhumri Telaiya, Pinto said in an earlier interview.

The unnamed narrator begins the story, his story about his manic depressive beedi smoking mother, who talks to him and Susan, his sister about everything under the sun. That is why they call her sometimes Em with a exclamation mark. Early on, the narrator says as a young boy, he did not know how to deal with what they were as a family — I only knew that something was wrong with all of us and it had something to do with my mother and her nerves. When he visits her in the hospital ward, Em in one of her lucid moments, describes her condition as a tap somewhere that opened when the narrator was born.

After you were born, someone turned on a tap. At first it was only a drip, a black drip, and I felt sadness. I had felt sad before… who hasn’t? I knew what it was like. But I didn’t know that it would come like that, for no reason. I lived with it for weeks — Imelda tells the narrator.

Em fills the book but the character to watch is the narrator himself who fleshes out a story, which, according to Amitav Ghosh, is never self-indulgent and shows no trace of self-pity. He talks about the depression as a night terror, like stepping into quicksand and being sucked into the centre of the earth. Mental illness is often judged in society, which often invokes fear, dread, pain and a tendency to sympathise or distance from it. 

In this first fiction, Pinto embraces all these emotions and more and packs in a story that reels in the reader through dark humour bordering on mirth to look closer at the lives of the family whose member is bipolar. By the end of the book, something shifts inside you and you are reminded of how the struggle can be real for so many people. 

The book has been produced beautifully too and each chapter heading seemed to be like the beginning of a poem. ‘Someone turned on a tap’, ‘Hello buttercup’, ‘If he should try to rape you’, ‘The prayers of mentals’, ‘I am no I’ and so on. One can make an entire poem out of them.

The story of the Em and the Big Hoom is stitched together through flashbacks, diary entries with a courtship that begins in bookstores, sipping on Coca Cola floats, walking hand in hand on the Marine drive. 

In one letter to the Big Hoom, Em writes — I cry at the least provocation but I am glad to say that I do not blub. I simply tear up but only in one eye. Do you find that odd? Do you really want to marry a woman who cries with only one eye?

The story is a sad one, but it is not hard to crack up in the faces of sentences like these.

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