Pinto, Jerry. “Em and the Big Hoom: A Novel”, Penguin Books, 2014.
An Unusual Family
Imelda and Augustine are the most unusual parents. Em seems to be smoking “beedis” most of the time and she is singing her way through life. She knows that she is the center of the universe and in her mind, everything revolves around her. She certainly is enchanting and full of spirit except when her bi-polar disorder takes over and she changes, becoming almost monstrous and the consequences are rarely good. We learn about Em from her son who is the narrator of the story. Em is the victim of a mental disorder that brings her close to her husband on one hand and far way from him on the other. Em’s husband and the narrator’s father, Augustine “The Big Hoom” does what he can to help his wife, Imelda (Em) but he also has a daughter, Susan and his son (who is unnamed) to take care of.
We learn quickly that life is something like riding on a roller coaster with its ups and downs. Everyone in Mumbai knows that Em has mental problems and many people love her and the family and they try to help in whatever ways possible. The son has his parents constantly on his mind and he often thinks about the past and how Em and Augustine came together. He has fears for the future that sometimes seems promising and other times seems to indicate disaster. He senses both hope and despair for what will be. He also thinks about the role of genetics in his life and he worries that he may have inherited something that will cause him problems or perhaps cause him to be a good father like his dad. His mother, when she is lucid, has a sweetness about her and she is honest and playful despite her disability. Jerry Pinto tells us what it is like to grow up with a mentally ill parent, one who tries to keep the family happy. The real beauty here is not the story but Pinto’s gorgeous poetic prose and this is his first novel. Much of what the young son thinks about is familiar to us and there is certainly a lot to think about here.
While the son speaks about hiss family members, we get a look at how mental illness affects a family and learn that the emotions that this family faces are complicated and complex. We also learn about the hopes and dreams of children as they grow and understand mortality. There is, of course, love and humor but there is also bitterness, fear, and anger.
When Em is speaking, the narrative feels scattered, because that’s what her mind is like. Author Pinto skillfully uses dark humor so that we are not overwhelmed. I loved the realistic optimism of the son and found him to be quite the inspiring character.
The term ‘mad’ can mean many things to different people and we see here referring to the son’s mother as we feel the profound effect that this has on him (and his family). The book consists of short anecdotes that contain memories, conversations, ‘episodes of mania’ and ever changing emotions to the mother’s illness, and the reactions of the family members to it. It is the narrator that ties everything together to give us a picture of how his family copes and hopes. Over time, the mother’s illness has grown from a ‘nervous break-down’ to ‘schizophrenia’ and ultimately to a ‘manic depression’. The short chapter titles summarize the bulk of the story and they elaborate on the idiosyncrasies of Em and the Big Hoom’s personalities and the climactic moments that seem to constantly redefine their relationship with themselves, and their children.
I think that what makes this book such a fascinating read is Pinto’s gorgeous prose and how he uses just the right words to tell us what it is like to be a part of this manic world of the mother, and the father’s strength of character to endure, support and survive his family through it. He uses simple analogies that wonderfully portray what the family is going through and thus brings us into it and we not only empathize with the family, we become part of it. The story thus becomes personal.
The son has a sense of dread that he will contract his mother’s disease and he is frustrated at not being able to discover what the cause of it is and feels helpless to deal with it. He wants to reach out to his mother but does not know how. He admires and respects his father who is so dedicated to the family yet there is always the fear of the breakdown of it. The son understands what it must feel like to be manic and we sense this all the time through the author’s descriptions. We witness the bond between the parents from the beginning when they were young lovers in a newly independent India, and how this bond changed over thirty years of marriage. The relationship changed from being madly and passionately in love with each other to learning to deal with their lives as mental illness worked its way into the relationship. Whatever stigmas were felt in terms of mental illness begin to disintegrate as we live within this family.
Even though the setting is in India, the story transcends time and place and if I had to give the most important aspect of the story (aside from the language), this would be it.