Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom deals with bipolar disorder, which is a very real and serious issue, but the author handles it with humour, giving it a touch of lightness. I read it when I was on a holiday — at peace with myself and without real life intruding into my consciousness — and that made my experience of reading the book far more rich. It has done for mental health (specifically bipolar disorder), what Dear Zindagi has done for therapy. It has not exactly removed the stigma, though I think that was the author’s intention, by showing a reality peppered with as many facts as possible. It cannot have been easy, because it has roots in reality – Jerry Pinto’s mother suffered from the same disease. So then, Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto’s debut novel, which has been a lifetime in the making, comes from an intensely personal place.
Welcome to the family of Em and the Big Hoom. Their son is the nameless narrator, and we see everything from his eyes. The story is of his childhood with his sister Susan and his parents – the patient, rock solid father Augustine, whom they call Hoom, and the unpredictable volatile and, not to mention, frequently suicidal Imelda, Em. It is like every other middle class family in Bombay, except here the mother suffers from bipolar disorder and her highs and lows (manic and depressive episodes) throws their lives into disarray.
Em was subject to microweathers; her manic phase could vary from cheerful and laughing to malevolent and sneering, and back again within an hour. In contrast, her depressive phases were almost unrelieved in their darkness.
The narrator grows up to be a sensitive young man, a journalist, and even though he cared about Em, he did not want to stay at home because he never knew what to expect.
Home was uncertainty: Who would open the door? Em in a panic of sorrow? Em in a rage against some unnamed enemies? Em in a laughing fit with a beedi fuming in her hands?
The book won the 2016 Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction and the 2012 Hindu Literary Prize for Fiction.
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- Jerry Pinto’s ear for dialogue is excellent, crisp and crackling – like biting into a fried pakora. The conversations feel real and even the most serious ones don’t weigh the story down, but take the story forward.
- Normally, mothers are always portrayed as saintly self sacrificing creatures whose worlds are their children, and fathers are relegated to peripheral roles, not involved in the everyday messiness that bringing up children entails. Here the scenario is reversed and done well. A sympathetic patient father, who weathers storms with poise, felt almost too good to be true.
- The central character Imelda has been drawn well. Em was an independent woman with a job before the disease struck , she married for love and raised two children with the help of a supportive life partner. Her illness didn’t stop her from living her life.
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- Not advised for younger audiences. Strong language and scenes of depression and suicide could disturb sensitive readers.
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- I had the opportunity to meet the author at a literary festival and I wanted to ask him what his family thought of the book, but I lacked the courage to do so, and in the midst in school children jostling for autographs the question was left unasked.
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- Why did the world need this book? If Pinto had wanted to purge himself he could have as well written his heart out in a diary. Did he feel a sense of relief after he was done with the book? Like he could move on and live his life?
Curious about someone living with a mental illness? Read it.