‘Em and The Big Hoom’ by Jerry Pinto

Amitav Ghosh | April 10, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (8)

Em and the Big Hoom

(unpublished ms)
by
Jerry Pinto
Having followed Jerry Pinto’s work for many years I’ve long believed that he would one day produce a great book. Two years ago, when he promised to send me a manuscript I wondered whether that day might not be at hand. But the manuscript never came and nor was any mention made of it again. Then, a couple of days ago, there it was.
‘Em and The Big Hoom’ is the story of a boy growing up in Mumbai with a mentally afflicted mother (she is the ‘Em’ of the title; ‘The Big Hoom’ is the father). Whether it is a memoir or a bildungsroman I do not know and I don’t think it particularly matters. What is important is that it is utterly persuasive and deeply affecting: stylistically adventurous it is never self-indulgent; although suffused with pain it shows no trace of self-pity. Parts of it are extremely funny, and its pages are filled with endearing and eccentric characters. It also gives us vivid glimpses of rarely-seen facets of Mumbai life: the world of Goan Catholics; of the city’s institutions for the mentally ill; of children who read Adorno and Brendan Behan while coping with a suicidal parent…
‘Em and The Big Hoom’is a profoundly moving book: I cannot remember when I last read something as touching as this. I don’t know what Jerry’s plans for it are, but I hope it appears soon and has the success it deserves. In the meanwhile, as a foretaste, here are a few paragraphs.
One day, under the huge mango tree that stood in the schoolyard, with a bunch of schoolboys standing around me, mocking me for being the son of a mad woman, I thought suddenly and automatically: “I want to go home.” And then I thought as suddenly, “I don’t want to go home.” I remember thinking, “If I go on like this, I will go mad.” I tried not to think too much about home, as a concept, after that.
But each time Em came home, we all hoped, for a little while, that the pieces of the jigsaw would fall into place again. Now we could be a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother. Four Pintos, somewhat love-battered, still standing.
I grew up being told that my mother had a nervous problem. Later, I was told it was a nervous breakdown. Then we had a diagnosis, for a brief while, she was said to be schizophrenic and was treated as one. And finally, everyone settled down to calling her manic depressive. Through it all, she had only one word for herself: mad.
Mad?
Mad is an everyday, ordinary word. It is compact. It fits into songs. As the old Hindi film song had it, M-A-D mane paagal. It can become a phrase, “Maddaw-what?” which began life as “Are you mad or what?”. It can be everything you choose it to be: a mad whirl, a mad idea, a mad March day, a mad heiress, a mad mad mad mad world, a mad passion, a mad hatter, a mad dog…
But it is different when you have a mad mother. Then the word wakes up from time to time and blinks at you, eyes of fire. But only sometimes for we used the word casually ourselves, children of a mad mother. There is no automatic gift that arises out of such a circumstance. If sensitivity or gentleness came with such a genetic load, there would be no old people in mental homes.”
Amitav Ghosh
April 11, 2011


8 Responses to “‘Em and The Big Hoom’ by Jerry Pinto”

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  1. Comment by Shenny — April 10, 2011 at 3:04 am   Reply

    Please tell Jerry that it should be published soon. There is a crying need for mental health issues to be addressed, dealt with and treated as any other illness. The stigma attached to being 'mad' or having people in the family afflicted by mental illness is as hurtful as any other; far worse for the people themselves who are suffering from it, since it is, more often than not, an invisible suffering.

    A book like this will go a long way in helping people come out and speak of mental health honestly, seek help, and most of all, make people outside of this painful world more sensitive and compassionate to those whom it affects directly and indirectly.

  2. Comment by Achintyarup Ray — April 10, 2011 at 11:13 am   Reply

    This reminds me of another book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I loved that.

    Jerry's book, A Bear for Felicia, is one of my favourites. Now I will be waiting for Em and the Big Hoom.

  3. Comment by Sourabh — May 2, 2011 at 12:19 pm   Reply

    Hi Amitav,

    The topic of Jerry Pinto’s new novel is similar to a series written by the Japanese short story writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa in 1924. His was the bildungsroman, since his mother too was mad, and had been in a mental asylum since his childhood.

    The first part of the series on his life was titled Daidoji Shinsuke: The Early Years, published in a newspaper, where he narrated the life of a young school-going boy, with an invented name. But the story was his. Akutagawa’s prose too is deeply affecting and complex and extremely sad, because the experience is personal. The series’ other pasts include Writer’s Craft and The Life Of a Stupid Man.

    Akutagawa of course is more famous for The Bamboo Grove and Rashomon, and for killing himself at the age of 35, an inevitable consequence of being the son of a mad woman.

    His suicide note was beautifully celebrated by Yasunari Kawabata in his Nobel lecture, through which I came to know about Akutagawa.

    Regards,
    Sourabh,
    Kolkata

    • Comment by Amitav Ghosh — May 3, 2011 at 9:50 am   Reply

      Thanks very much for this: I will look up Akutagawa’s work.
      best wishes
      Amitav

  4. Comment by Sourabh — May 6, 2011 at 11:08 am   Reply

    Thanks. Looking forward to River of Smoke.

    Regards,
    Sourabh

  5. Comment by Malyada — October 28, 2011 at 5:13 am   Reply

    As I grow older, I realise that each one of us is mad and dysfunctional in one way or the other. Its just that the ‘varieties of madness’ differ. Some are ubiquitous and hence accepted, the uncommon ones stands out as odd. I can though understand the pain of a child growing with an odd kind of mother. As you have mentioned in another post – its ‘the tyranny of the bell curve’.

  6. Comment by SreekumarJune 17, 2012 at 1:53 pm   Reply

    Since we are on the subject of mothers and making sense of and coming to terms with their broken lives, I thought readers might also find Israeli writer Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness” moving. Oz’s mother was never thought to be “mad”. She committed suicide when he was only eight and she only in her 20’s (This is from a faulty memory. I could be wrong about the age.) The following is a paragraph from the New York Times Sunday Book Review:

    Until now, Oz has never written about his unhappy mother and the January day in 1952 when she walked back through the rain to a moldy flat and an overdose of sedatives. Nor had he and his father ever discussed it: ”From the day of my mother’s death to the day of my father’s death, 20 years later, we did not talk about her once. Not a word. As if she had never lived. As if her life was just a censured page torn from a Soviet encyclopedia.” He will make up for that erasure with this indelible memoir, circling so often around the wound, inching up and closing in, that finally Fania’s furious son has no other ground to stand on. Oz sits shiva, sings Kaddish and excavates himself like the bone-picking archaeologists at Hazor or Megiddo, digging up bronze coins and headless statues, goatskin bags and incense shovels, valor and shame.

  7. Comment by NitinMay 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm   Reply

    This book rightfully deserved the hindu literary award this year.Just finished the book last night. I’m still reeling under its influence. Jerry Pinto takes you on a roller coaster emotional ride. I’m still not able to believe that it’s a work of fiction. It involves the reader so much that you empathise with the characters. Unlike books about people with mental illness that are either too self indulgent or self piteous this one’s straight from the heart of the protagonist’s son and believe me,it hits you hard. The novel has its intensely funny moments.One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. If you happen to see this review do not hesitate. Please buy it and read it (and cherish it ofcourse ;).

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