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Review: Em and the Big Hoom

A son’s gentle narrative about a mentally unstable mother is universal in its appeal

books Updated: May 18, 2012 18:26 IST
Jai Arjun Singh, Hindustan Times
Hoom

Em and the Big Hoom

Jerry Pinto

Aleph

Rs 495 pp 235

The easy way to describe Jerry Pinto’s autobiographical novel is to say that it is a son’s account of life with a mentally unstable mother. Imelda Mendes is called ‘Em’ by her two children, the unnamed narrator and his elder sister Susan. Their father Augustine — affectionate, dependable but taciturn — is ‘the Big Hoom’, and they all live together in a one-BHK flat in Mahim.

Imelda has always been an energetic woman, but at some point after her children were born a deep-rooted depression set in — she has a few good days, but on the many bad ones even the trenches dug by the municipal corporation outside the house might seem like part of a threatening conspiracy (“We never knew when the weather would change dramatically with Em”). The family rallies around her and each other; the narrator describes their lives with a heartbreaking mix of tenderness and humour.

That sounds like a very particular story about a very particular person, but Em and the Big Hoom is much more universal in its appeal. Read carefully and you’ll find that it isn’t just about a “special” mother, it is about parents in a more general sense — parents as the looking glasses that we sometimes recoil from because in their aging faces and increasingly erratic behaviour we see our future selves — as well as a reminder that ‘normalcy’ and ‘madness’ are not airtight categories.

This gentle, kaleidoscopic narrative is, among other things, a son’s assessment of the long courtship between his parents-to-be, and an attempt to understand what two people he takes for granted might have been like in a very distant time, the Mumbai of the 50s and 60s (when Imelda worked as a steno-typist in an engineering-goods company, one of the few options available to a girl from her community and background). It is a litany of candid conversations — not all of them occurring beneath a facade of mental illness — and delightful pen-portraits: consider Em’s mother, who speaks in elisions, omitting important words in every sentence so that one has to infer what a question like “Where do you thissing?” might mean.

But this is also, in a strange but illuminating way, a book about writers and writing. Much of our understanding of Em’s state of mind comes from her journal entries, reproduced throughout the narrative, and letters such as the meandering one in which she acknowledges the seriousness of her relationship with Augustine. We are told that she was a seemingly effortless writer — one who might have made a career out of it in another lifetime — but also that compulsive writing may be a manifestation of her condition. “She was free associating, gliding through language.”

Given this, it is notable that the narrator himself tries to fight his genes by seeking refuge in the rigours of writing. “One of the defences I had devised against the possibility of madness was that I would explain every feeling I had to myself, track everything down to its source ... I worked it out on a piece of paper...”. He reaches for ways to convey his feelings about his mother but also recognises the impossibility of the task; after writing half a page of elegant prose about dark towers and their residents, he concedes that “as all analogies must, this one breaks down too”.

This may help one understand why Pinto — a prolific, busy writer-journalist known for juggling projects with ease — took more than two decades to complete this very personal book (which, he has said in interviews, was originally 10 times its current length). And this brings me to my one quibble about Em and the Big Hoom: the fact that it is presented as a work of fiction. While it works as a novel on its own terms (the writing is consistently vivid and moving enough to appeal to a reader who approaches it as a made-up story), I think it works even better if you know who the narrator is, and what his own writing life has been like. I don’t usually spend time dwelling on how ‘autobiographical’ a novel is, but I felt it mattered here: speaking as a reader-writer envious of the quality and range of Pinto’s work, this book seems to reveal much about his own imperatives. Trivial though this might sound — and largely unconnected with the actual quality of the writing — I wish it had ‘memoir’ rather than ‘fiction’ printed on its jacket flap.

Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer