“Profoundly moving . . . I cannot remember when I last read something as touching as this.” Amitav Ghosh, author of The Glass Palace
First published by a small press in India, Jerry Pinto’s devastatingly original debut novel has already taken the literary world by storm. Suffused with compassion, humor, and hard-won wisdom, Em and the Big Hoom is a modern masterpiece, and its American publication is certain to be one of the major literary events of the season.
Meet Imelda and Augustine, oras our young narrator calls his unusual parentsEm and the Big Hoom. Most of the time, Em smokes endless beedis and sings her way through life. She is the sun around which everyone else orbits. But as enchanting and high-spirited as she can be, when Em’s bipolar disorder seizes her she becomes monstrous, sometimes with calamitous consequences for herself and others. This accomplished debut is graceful and urgent, with a one-of-a-kind voice that will stay with readers long after the last page.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Jerry Pinto is a writer of poetry, prose, and children’s fiction, as well as a journalist. Em and the Big Hoom is his first novel. He is the winner of numerous literary awards, including the 2013 Crossword Book Award and Hindu Literary Award. He lives in Mumbai, India.
Read an Excerpt
Dear Angel Ears,
Outside the window, a Marathi manus is asking mournfully if anyone would like to buy salt. Or at least that’s what I think. Mee-ee-et, he wails, Me-eeetwallah, mee-eet. Other sounds: Mae mumbling about morning Mass; an impertinent sparrow demanding the last bit of my toast.
I miss you terribly. But if you are going to send me a postcard, I shall abstain. I think postcards are for acquaintances and now that we are friends, you should find some nice stationery and write me a proper letter. These scribbles will not do, they are meant for the common masses.
A butterfly is banging on the windowpane in the corridor and I must now rise to let it out. If your next letter is not to hand with heartwarming promptness, I shall declare you unfit for human consumption and throw you to the lions.
PS: The sparrow wins. Imelda: nil, Sparrow: one.
In her letters to him, she called him Angel Ears.
‘Why Angel Ears?’ I asked her, in Ward 33 (Psychiatric), Sir J. J. Hospital.
She turned her cool green eyes on me and smiled. For a while, her fingers stopped playing with the worn-out sheet that was covering her.
‘Haven’t you noticed? His ears are the sweetest thing about him. They look like bits of bacon curled up from too much frying.’
I had never thought of my father’s ears. But later that evening, as he stood in the kitchen and cooked for me and my sister, scraping at a fry-up of potatoes, I saw that his ears were indeed unusual. When was the first time that she noticed his ears? Was it part of her falling in love with him, or did it happen in the hypersensitive moments that follow? And when she called him by that name the first time, did he respond immediately? He probably did, without asking why. They could be like that together.
It intrigues me, love. Especially theirs, which seems to have been full of codes and rituals, almost all of them devised by her. She also called him Mambo, and Augie March, but almost never by his given name, Augustine.
He called her Imelda, which was her name, and, sometimes, Beloved.
• • •
She had another name for him: Limb of Satan. LOS. I asked her about that late one night, when the two of us were smoking together on the balcony of our small flat in a city of small flats. Behind us the one-bedroom-hall-kitchen, all 450 square feet of it, was quiet. In front of us, the side of a tenement rose like a cliff-face. Two trees were framed in between the buildings and in the foliage of one, a streetlight flickered erratically. She started laughing, a harsh scrape of sound that might belong in a brothel.
‘Because he was always tempting me to sin,’ she said.
‘Who was?’ Susan, my sister, was awake. She fitted herself into the balcony, waving a hand at the cloud of smoke we were producing.
‘It’s not a sin if you’re married, is it?’
‘It’s always a sin according to the Wholly Roaming Cat Licks.’
‘That can’t be true.’
‘Can it not? I think you’re only supposed to do it if you want babies. I wanted four but Hizzonner said, “Then you pay for the other two.” That, as they say, was that. And I had to give the twenty-six others away.’
‘What!’ Susan and I looked at each other. Were there hordes of siblings we knew nothing about?
‘I gave them straight out of my womb,’ she explained. ‘I could always tell when it had happened. I’d hear a click and I would know I was pregnant again, and I’d pray to Our Lady to take the poor wee thing and give it to someone else who wanted a child. Maybe one of those women who buy wax babies to offer the said Lady at Mahim.’
‘So you’d have . . .’ I ventured.
‘Abortions? No, what do you take me for? I’d just climb down five stairs and jump six.’
‘Jump down the stairs?’
‘Six steps and land with a thump, six times, to shake those little mites from their moorings.’
She turned to Susan.
‘But if you get knocked up, you come and tell me and I’ll come with you to the doctor. We’ll get you D’d and C’d before you can say Dick with a Thing and a Tongue.’
‘What is deed and seed?’
‘Dilation and curettage. I don’t know what exactly it is but it sounds like they open you up and put a young priest in there. Anyway, only doctors do it. So when you’re knocked up, you’ll get a proper doctor to fiddle with your middle, you hear? No back-street abortions for you.’
‘What about adoption?’ Susan asked.
‘What about it?’
‘Mother Teresa came to college and –’
‘She came to your college?’
‘You didn’t tell me.’
‘No. No one tells me anything. What did she say?’
‘She said that if we got pregnant we should carry the child to term and give it to her.’
‘She said that? Gosh.’
She frowned and was silent for a moment, considering this.
‘I suppose it comes from not having lived in the world for hundreds of years. She’s lived in a convent, it’s not her fault. But still. Suppose I got pregnant today. Suppose I got nice and big and everyone asked, “When is it due?” and “My, you’re carrying in the front, it must be a boy,” and “What do you want? Pink or blue?” – and after all that, there’s no baby at my breast. What do you think they’d think? What would I say? “Oh, I carried the baby to term and then I sent him off to Mother T because I couldn’t afford him and I didn’t want to have an abortion . . . ?”’
‘Maybe you’re supposed to hide,’ I said.
‘Oh yes, go away for a vacation for six or seven months. Where?’
‘Goa!’ she said theatrically. ‘That’s worse than having it in Bombay. You might as well take an advert out in O Heraldo – “Fallen woman available for gawking and comments behind hankies. Holy Family parish church, Sunday Mass. For personal appointments and the full story, contact Father so and so.”’
She shook her head.
‘That’s what comes of all this celibacy business. We confess to men who’ve never had to worry about a family. Naturally, it’s a huge sin to them, this abortion business. What do they know? They probably think it’s fun and games. Let them try it. I remember poor Gertie. Once, she was sure that it had happened –’
‘No, stupid, a pregnancy – she was late, and she was never late, so she knew. She took me out after work and we stood on the street near Chowpatty beach and she ate three platefuls of papaya. I thought she was constipated. But then we went to Bombelli’s and she had three gins as if they were cough syrup. That was when she told me what she was trying to do. “Bake the poor thing out of there,” she said. “It gets too hot inside, the bag squeezes and the baby pops out. I hope.” She came to the office the next day and she looked like death warmed over. Apparently, it had worked. “Baby, if something like that happens to you, you go and get it D’d and C’d. It’s not worth it,” she said to me. And now I say unto you, Sue, and to you too . . .’ she said, looking at me.
‘Yes, you. Not that you’re going to get pregnant any which way you turn out. But if you do put a loaf in some poor girl’s oven, you will take her to a government place, you will announce that you are Mr and Mrs D’Souza –’
‘I don’t know. Some name. Any name. Not hers. And after it’s done you will take her somewhere to rest and relax and weep and you will stay with her until she can go home.’
‘You mean I’m not to tell her to jump down six stairs and give the baby to Our Lady?’
‘You are a wicked young man to laugh at an old lady’s guilt,’ said Em. But she was smiling too.
• • •
She was always Em to us. There may have been a time when we called her something ordinary like Mummy, or Ma, but I don’t remember. She was Em, and our father, sometimes, was The Big Hoom. Neither Susan nor I, the only persons who might ever care to investigate the matter, can decide how those names came about, though we’ve tried (‘Em must mean M for Mother’ and ‘Maybe it’s because he made “hoom” sounds when we asked him something’). On certain days we called her Doogles, or The Horse, or other such names that sprang from some subterranean source and vanished equally quickly. Otherwise, she was Em, and most of the time she was Em with an exclamation mark.
Once, by mistake, I called her Mater. I got it out of a Richie Rich comic. The very rich, very snobby Mayda Munny used the word to address her mother. I should have known that I would not get away with something so precious, but I was nine or ten years old and did not know what precious meant. Em peered at me for a moment, pulling deeply on her beedi. (She smoked beedis because they were cheap, she said, and because once you’d started down the beedi road, you could never find your way back to the mild taste of cigarettes. The Big Hoom rarely came home from work in the evenings with sweets for us when we were children, but he never forgot the two bundles of Ganesh Chhaap Beedi.)
‘Mater,’ she said, and her eyes shone behind the curls of smoke. ‘Yes, I suppose I am. I did do it, didn’t I? And here you stand, living proof.’
I think I blushed. She roared, a happy manic laugh.
‘I thought you boys knew everything about the cock and cunt business!’
‘We do,’ I said, lamely, terrified of where the conversation was going.
‘So what did you think, both of you were products of the Immaculate Conception? Gosh, you couldn’t keep us out of bed in those first years.’
‘What? Are you feeling all Oedipal-Shmeedipal then?’
Em loved a good story. She was off.
‘Ick,’ I said when Oedipus wandered off, his eyes bleeding and his future uncertain, escorted by his daughter who was also his sister.
‘Well you may say “Ick”,’ said Em. ‘But that’s what Freud says every boy wants to do to his mother. Ick, I say to Mr Freud. He must have been odd, even for an Austrian. Not that I’m racist, but why would they have a navy when they’re landlocked?’
‘Mr Freud was in the navy?’ I asked, confused.
‘No, silly, I’m talking about The Sound of Music.’
The Big Hoom came into the bedroom.
‘You’re telling the boy about?’
‘The psychoanalytic movement,’ said Em, her voice slightly defiant.
‘Have you got past the id, the ego and the superego?’ he asked pleasantly.
‘I should have started at that end, shouldn’t I?’
‘At what end did you start?’
‘Oh, I was telling him about the Oedipus Complex.’
The Big Hoom said nothing. He did nothing. He looked at her. She went into a tizzy.
‘It’s knowledge, knowledge is good, it will help, knowledge always helps,’ she said. She was attempting logic. But she was miserable. It was only later that I came to understand why she never used her condition as a refuge: it would have violated her sense of fair play. The Big Hoom let her stew for a bit and then he nodded. He opened The Hamlyn Children’s Encyclopaedia, a book that I refused to read because it had been given to Susan as a birthday present, and slowly led me through the facts of life.
This might have been enough, but my mind was already locked on to what Em had told me. ‘Why do boys want to do that with their mothers?’ I asked.
A lesser man might have run shrieking from the question, or told his son to shut up. The Big Hoom taught me the word hypothesis, instead, and explained a little bit about Freud and tried to clear things up. Finally, he set me to making words out of ‘hypothesis’ and promised me ten paise for every word after the twentieth.
I loved the word hypothesis. It sounded adult and beautifully alien. I had never heard anything like it before. I wanted more words like it. I felt, instinctively, that when you had enough words like hypothesis, you would be able to deal with the world. I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to deal with the world. It seemed too big and demanding and there wasn’t a fixed syllabus.
I didn’t know how to deal with what we were as a family, either. I didn’t really know what we were as a family. I only knew that something was wrong with all of us and that it had something to do with my mother and her nerves.
‘What are nerves?’ I had asked The Big Hoom once. I didn’t really want to know but a question was a good way to get him to pay attention to me. He put down his newspaper and took me into the gallery. Outside, wires snaked and writhed between the buildings of our housing colony. He pointed to them.
‘What are those?’
I hated these moments. I wanted to be told, I did not want to be asked.
‘Wires,’ I said.
‘What do wires do?’
‘Yes, they carry electric current,’ he said. ‘Nerves do that inside the body.’
Thoughts, like electric currents, and inside my mother’s head they ran uncontrolled – flashing and sizzling. I carried that image with me through my childhood for what ailed my mother and took her to hospital, sometimes every few months. Then she gave me another.
• • •
She was in Ward 33 again, lying in bed, a bed with a dark green sheet and a view of the outside. We could both see a man and a woman getting out of a taxi. They were young and stood for a while, as if hesitating, in front of the hospital. Then the man took the woman’s hand in his and they walked into the hospital and we lost them.
‘That’s why Indian women fall ill,’ Em said. ‘So that their husbands will hold their hands.’
‘Is that why you’re here?’
I wanted to bite my tongue. I wanted to whiz around the world, my red cape flying, and turn time back so that I could choose not to make that remark. But Em, being Em, was already replying.
‘I don’t know, Baba, I don’t know why. It’s a tap somewhere. It opened when you were born.’
I was repaid in pain, a sharp thing.
‘I loved you. And before you I loved Susan, the warmth of her and the smiles and the tiny toes and the miracle of her fingernails and the way her scrapes would fade within the day as she healed and grew. I loved the way her face lit up when she saw me and the way she nursed. But after you came along . . .’
She turned to the window again. An ambulance turned in, lazily, in the way of the city’s ambulances. Inured to traffic, unconcerned by mortality, unimpressed by anyone’s urgency, the ambulance driver stopped to light a beedi before jumping out of the cab. We watched together as someone inside opened the doors and two young men leapt out and tried to wrest a stretcher from within.
‘Was it like that?’ she asked. She had forgotten how she got to the hospital.
‘No,’ I said. ‘You came in a taxi.’
‘What was I wearing?’
‘The green dress with the pockets.’
She looked puzzled.
I rooted about in the locker by the bed, a locker marked ‘Patient Belonging’, and opened it. I pulled the dress out.
‘Oh that one,’ she said. ‘Bring it here.’
She stroked it as if to rediscover a little more about it.
‘The tap?’ I said.
‘Sorry. I must be going mad.’
We both smiled at this, but only a little. It was a tradition: the joke, the smile.
‘After you were born, someone turned on a tap. At first it was only a drip, a black drip, and I felt it as 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.’
‘Was there a drain?’
‘No. There was no drain. There isn’t one even now.’
She was quiet for a bit.
‘It’s like oil. Like molasses, slow at first. Then one morning I woke up and it was flowing free and fast. I thought I would drown in it. I thought it would drown little you, and Susan. So I got up and got dressed and went out onto the road and tried to jump in front of a bus. I thought it would be a final thing, quick, like a bang. Only, it wasn’t.’
Her hands twitched at the sheet.
‘Yes, the scar’s still there.’
We were silent. I didn’t want to hear this. I wanted to hear it.
‘The bus stopped and the conductor had to take me to a hospital in a taxi. He sat in the front, lotus pose.’
‘My blood was flowing across the floor of the taxi. There was no drain there either. I remember it all, as if rain had fallen. Have you ever noticed how rain clears the air? Everything stands out but it also looks a little thinner, as if the dust had been keeping things together. I felt as if . . .’
Her hands twitched at the sheet again. It slipped off her foot and both of us looked at the scar that ran from under the big toe to her ankle, a ridge of scar tissue.
‘It had to be dressed every day for months. Dr Saha came and did the honours.’
‘Don’t wander,’ I said.
‘Where was I?’
‘In the taxi. With the world outside clear.’
She looked a little confused.
‘You said the world was clear.’
‘Oh, not the world. Inside my head.’
Each time she had tried to kill herself she had opened her body and let her blood flow out. Was that the drain, then, I wondered, was that how it worked?
‘And this time?’ I asked her. ‘Is it clear now?’
‘This time I heard a small voice inside my head, just as I was beginning to slip away. I heard it say, “Please save me.”’
‘That was you.’
‘No, I heard it.’
‘It was you,’ I said again.
‘It must have been, no? I heard it as if it were someone else. And then you came. And Susan. I didn’t want it that way. I didn’t want the two of you to see anything like that in your lives.’
We had gone out together that afternoon, Susan and I, even though The Big Hoom was at work. It was a time of plenty. The stock market had worked in The Big Hoom’s favour and he had sold some shares. A nurse had been hired and Em was, for once, someone else’s responsibility.
We were teens on an adventure, watching Coolie, the biggest Amitabh Bachchan hit of 1983. The Big Hoom wouldn’t have approved, and Em would have mocked, but they would never find out. We had laughed a lot, happy that we could go out and laugh, like all the others we knew who were our age. And it was a warm afternoon, the kind made for laughing. When the show was over and we came home, the nurse was asleep. She had no idea where Em was – this, in a house with a single bedroom, one living room, one small kitchen, two narrow corridors, one four-by-two balcony. Susan knew. She headed straight for the bathroom. There was no reply. She called, ‘Em, Em,’ panic streaking her voice. I knocked and called too. Finally, we heard something wet and slithery inside, and the door opened.
‘I tried it again,’ Em said. She was drenched in blood. It was in her hair. It was on her hands. It was dripping from her clothes.
I pulled out the immersion rod to warm some water. Susan went for the nurse, but she, wily lady, had taken one look over our shoulders and vanished into the still-warm afternoon. Susan called The Big Hoom. I heard her in some other way, not the normal way you hear things. It was thin and distant but it was also clear. I can still hear it if I try. I don’t. Em was leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door and shivering. I guided her to the low metal stool and she sat down. Her arms dangled between her knees. I picked up one of her arms and turned it over to look. The cut was a single line, dark red. It said nothing.
‘Em tried to kill herself,’ I heard Susan say.
Then she was back.
‘What did he say?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’ she was impatient as she tested the water with her finger. ‘He says he’s coming.’
I poured warm water over Em, from her head downwards. The water ran red. Susan reached down in front of Em and began to raise her dress and petticoat. I excused myself. My mother was going to be stripped naked.
I went out and made the next call. To Granny, Em’s mother, solid woman, cloth and sawdust solid.
‘Coming,’ said Granny.
‘Take a taxi,’ I said.
‘Taking,’ said Granny.
I stood in the balcony for a while. The traffic flowed outside. A sparrow dropped onto the balcony. A crow followed. The sparrow fluttered away. The crow preened cockily. A chickoo seller announced that his wares came from Gholvad. Then I went to make tea with lots of sugar. I had read somewhere that sugar helps with shock. Who was shocked?
When Em and Susan came out, I brought them tea. Susan sat Em down and held the tea cup to her lips. I went into the bathroom and turned on all the taps. I let the water flood out onto the floor. The stick broom, which had a tendency to fall on its side after it was used, was saturated in blood. There were clots that looked like hairballs – I still don’t know what they were – and they kept clogging the drain. I gathered them with my foot in one corner where they could not impede the flow of the water, the draining of the blood. I smelt the odour that trains leave on your fingers: iron. In some odd part of my brain, something about the link between iron and anaemia and haemoglobin and blood clicked into place. I went down and bought a bottle of iron tonic.
When I returned, Granny and The Big Hoom had arrived. He was already in the bathroom, cleaning up. Granny was in the bedroom, talking to Em and drinking tea.
I don’t remember what we did that evening. I don’t remember going to sleep or waking up the next morning. I only remember the moment Dr Saha, the family GP, came. He clicked his tongue and bandaged Em – her wrists this time. The Big Hoom was not a fan of bandages; he believed that sunlight and air did more good if you kept things clean, but he didn’t object.
‘Should she go to the hospital?’ he asked.
‘See how she sleeps,’ Dr Saha said.
We slept that night, so Granny and The Big Hoom must have kept watch over Em. And something must have changed in the night because she was not there the next morning. We began our hospital visits: one day Susan, one day me, every day The Big Hoom. On one of these visits, she told me about the tap that opened at my birth and the black drip filling her up and it tore a hole in my heart. If that was what she could manage with a single sentence, what did thirty years of marriage do to The Big Hoom?
Imelda saw Augustine in the office. Her diary reads:
I finally located the source of the booming voice. I asked Andrade, who is the registered office flirt, about the noise and he said, ‘Oh, that’s AGM.’ I looked a bit puzzled and he looked a bit puzzled. ‘I don’t know his name. We all call him AGM. His initials, I think.’
‘Don’t you like him?’ I asked.
‘Oh, he’s a great guy. You’ll see.’
‘And you don’t know his name?’
‘I do. It’s AGM,’ he said.
Now what do you say to that?
I think I might like it here, as long as they don’t give me too many numbers to type . . .
We had carte blanche to read Em’s diaries and letters. Sometimes she read them out to us, her spectacles perched high on her nose, the black frame hiding her thick eyebrows. I never saw her tear up anything; every scrap and note written to her went into a series of cheerful cloth bags. On certain days, she would rummage around in the bags and pull out a note, a fragment, a whole letter. She would glance at some, read some in full, and dream.
While Em’s letters were public documents in the family, neither Susan nor I read her diaries during her lifetime (Susan still won’t). Perhaps we had understood very early that they would give us no clues to her illness, or ways to reach her on her worst days. Or – and this may be closer to the truth – we were afraid of what we might find there, and afraid of having to deal with it. Even now, I look in Em’s notebooks not for my mother but for Augustine’s Beloved.
It didn’t take Augustine, aka AGM, long to spot the new girl in the office of ASL – Ampersand Smith Limited – the engineering goods company at which Imelda was the new stenotypist and he was the junior manager, sales. Two days later, he spoke to her:
Booming Voice spoke to me. What nerve. He bounces past my desk, flashes his blue peepers at me and says, ‘Hello buttercup,’ and ricochets off the opposite wall to do something else.
I find it difficult to picture my father in these entries. To me, he seemed built for endurance, not speed. The thought of him ricocheting off walls is odd. I have tried reconstructing him in my head, dressing him in what up-and-coming young men wore to the office at the time: white shirt, black trousers, black shoes and socks. Like all such men, he probably also kept another couple of shirts with him, and a tin of talcum powder, so that he could change when the humidity leached his shirt of its starch. He was a man who liked women. When he won The Illustrated Weekly of India’s crossword contest, he bought every woman in his office a yellow rose with a little fern wrapped in white tissue and tied with a yellow satin ribbon. For that day, so Gertrude told Imelda, the office had felt like a garden. And for weeks the perfume of the roses had lingered, if not in reality, then at least in the imaginations of the young women of ASL. Gertrude had opened her bag and showed Imelda that the satin ribbon still lay at the bottom.
‘To remind me that all men aren’t the same, dear,’ she had said. Gertrude was a veteran of the love wars. She had been ‘carrying on’ with a married man for so many years, she had lost count. ‘And to add insult to injury, dear, he’s Muzzlim.’
Imelda was too young to understand that love could be an injury. She was too young to understand why Motasim’s religion was an added insult.
She was also too young to respond to ‘Hello buttercup’. So she hadn’t.
‘Why didn’t you?’ Gertrude was surprised.
‘I didn’t know what to say.’
‘You could have said “Hello”?’
But in all the films Imelda had seen, the suave young man would say ‘Hello buttercup’ and the heroine would answer such impudence with the kind of remark that would stop his airy advance through fields of irises and daisies and tansies. Such a crisp response marked her as someone different from the rest, a fitting sparring partner, someone to love.
Excerpted from "Em and the Big Hoom"
Copyright © 2014 Jerry Pinto.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Em and the Big Hoom is a beautiful book, a child’s-eye view of madness and sorrow, full of love, pain, and, unaccountably, much wild comedy. One of the very best books to come out of India in a long, long, time.” – Salman Rushdie, Best of the Booker winner for Midnight’s Children
‘A delightful debut . . . Written with genuine compassion and sincerity, while a sprinkling of black humour ensures it is never overly sentimental’ - Financial Times
‘Jerry Pinto's prose is lively and incisive . . . moments of great humour here as well as moments of tenderness and poignancy’ - Herald
‘Powerful’ - Sunday Times
‘Delightful … Pinto is quite a genius with dialogue’ - Guardian
“Pinto chases the elusive portrait of a mother who simply said of herself that she was mad. As I read the novel, that also portrays a very tender marriage and the life of a Goan family in Bombay, it drowned me. I mean that in the best way. It plunged me into a world so vivid and capricious, that when I finished, I found something had shifted and changed within myself. This is a world of magnified and dark emotion. The anger is a primal force, the sadness wild and raw. Against this, the jokes are hilarious, reckless, free falling… This is a rare, brilliant book, one that is wonderfully different from any other I that I have read coming out of India.” – Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss, Winner of the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award
‘A near-perfect account of a psychologically troubled mother and the shockwaves felt by her family. Rich and beguiling . . . Within sentences of this touching, funny and calmly shocking narrative, their son makes it clear that he knows about the things that really matter’ - Irish Times
‘Em and the Big Hoom addresses mental illness in everyday lives with powerful originality and humour’ - The Big Issue in the North
“Pinto’s narrative is both brutal and beautiful.” – Business Standard Book Review
“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. Em and the Big Hoom is a profoundly moving book: I cannot remember when I last read something as touching as this.” – Amitav Ghosh, bestselling author of The Glass Palace
“Deeply engrossing, finely-tuned, and told with a moving and luminous clarity, this is a splendid and memorable debut.” – The Hindu
“Although it’s set in India, Em and the Big Hoom is a relevant and resonant book for any audience, anywhjere, transcending territory and nationality even as it reflects upon them. It is a great big wide novel with a voice so unique and yet, somehow, so familiar that its words ring in your ears long after you’ve left these pages, calling you back, again and again, to a story that demands to be read.” – Lauren Slater, author of Opening Skinner’s Box and Prozac Diary
'Em and the Big Hoom is a joyous read that leaves you chuckling and sad, at once.' – The Asian Age
“Pinto’s prose quicksilvers its way through time and emotions, slipping in wit and pulling out despair elegantly… Every one of Pinto’s characters feels alive and real.” – Dnaindia.com
“This is a small and beautiful book … Pinto’s writing has startling sweetness” – Asian Review of Books
Reading Group Guide
There’s something different about the Mendes family. In a one-bedroom, hall-kitchen apartment in Mahim, Bombay, lives a Roman Catholic family from Goa: Imelda; Augustine; their daughter, Susan; and their son, the unnamed narrator of their story. Em and the Big Hoom, as the parents are affectionately referred to by their children, look after each other in their own ways. Em is an unpredictable fixture in the apartment, spending most of her days at home, brewing tea and smoking beedis while the Big Hoom works reliably at his office job. The house is filled with tangible, unselfish love between the Mendes family, but it is also tested and affirmed by a relentless darkness, threatening to grip Em at any time.
The family works together as they struggle to find peace within Em’s ever-transforming manic depression, from highs that take them from the euphoria of their mother’s brilliance and honesty to sudden lows with paranoia, inaccessibility, and attempts to take her own life. When Em is well, the world of the novel brims with the delight of her charming strangeness; when Em is at the mercy of her disorder, the world seems to warp in the power of her suffering. The Big Hoom is a benevolent mystery to his children, presiding over an at times chaotic household. His affection for Em is apparent even (or especially) in silence.
Their son, driven by his desire to understand the origin of his mother’s bipolar disorder—and perhaps also to determine his own odds for “madness”—chronicles his parents’ early life together. Em’s journal entries and letters to the Big Hoom add another vibrant dimension, her voice at times both heartbreakingly funny and uniquely vicious.
The chemistry and compassion between Em and the Big Hoom is as moving as any love story, and as devastating. Jerry Pinto writes mental illness as a kind of poetry, painful and intimate. The Mendes household is full of hilarious nicknames, peculiar hours, equal parts worry and humor, and an absolute acceptance of one another. Pinto has crafted a wild, distinctly original character in Em, and in the family that is at once held together and torn apart by her unknowable mind.
ABOUT JERRY PINTO
Jerry Pinto is a writer of prose, poetry, and children’s fiction, in addition to being a journalist. Em and the Big Hoom, winner of the 2013 Crossword Book Award and the Hindu Literary Award, is his first novel. He lives in Mumbai, India.
A CONVERSATION WITH JERRY PINTO
1. What was your inspiration for Em and the Big Hoom?
I think Em and the Big Hoom was the novel I always wanted to write. It was the first thing I ever started to write, when I was around sixteen, in a summer of angst and red mud lifted from Shivaji Park by the pre-monsoon breezes. It was supposed to cure me, this novel. It was supposed to help me deal with what I had just learned was called a “skewed family.” So I began writing with the desire to get it all out. I had also just learned the word catharsis. It was such a beautiful word, so rich with mythic association, so adult in connotation that it had to be true. I wanted a way to scream my rage at the world and its injustices, silly prat that I was.
I wrote this version of it, the one you are reading, nearly twenty-four years later when I had managed to rid myself of many of those notions of art-as-cure and art-as-therapy. Now I just wanted to write a novel.
2. Em and the Big Hoom is categorized as fiction, yet seems so persuasive in its character precision that it is sometimes unimaginable that it could be anything but a true story. On the spectrum between fiction and memoir, where would you say this novel fits?
This book is a novel. It is true that my mother did suffer from bipolar disorder and that my family spent most of its time and energy dealing with that. And so I suppose you could say the book is based on fact. But I could not fit my family into a book. You know yourself too well; you know your family too well. They spill over the sides. Their real stories implicate too many people. The pages crowd up, the voices multiply. You’re now using too many adjectives and there are too many possibilities.
In one of the many earlier avatars of this novel, it was a memoir. The psychic cost proved too high and the book ground to a halt. And so I backed off and looked again at what I wanted to do. I finally chose fiction because I wanted to be able to say, “Yes, this is my story. But it is a story I tell about what happened to me.” And so I say that my book is 95 percent fact and 95 percent fiction. The small sliver that is left is for the reader to come in and say what she likes about my book. “Jerry wrote a novel,” she might say. “Jerry wrote a memoir,” she might be equally likely to say. I don’t mind. I think each reader makes a book happen and each happening is different. It is what each reader makes of it.
3. You are a journalist, a poet, a researcher, and a nonfiction writer, among many things. How was the experience of writing fiction different from those?
I don’t know that it was any different. In its basic shape, almost all writing is the same: an act of translation from idea to word. It is a murder: you take the amorphous and give it shape. It is a challenge: the blank sheet, the white computer screen, they mock you and beckon you simultaneously. Have you got what it takes, Jerry? Have you still got something to say, Jerry? It is a narrowing: the first word is free and can do what it wants but it already limits the second word and the second word limits the third and suddenly the fourth is beginning to sound almost inevitable and then you must jump in and pound it, ezrapound it, make it new. So there are days when you only want to edit someone else’s writing, or shape someone’s words anew in the act of translation, but you know that those are stopgap arrangements. Eventually, you must go back to doing what you came here to do: you must tell that story that is yawning and stretching and coming awake inside your head.
So each morning I think of myself as going to a huge building which is only a facade. It’s all windows, windows, windows. Then I look at the windows and something seems to be moving behind one and I open that window and it’s a poem, or it’s a short story, or it’s a pretender, a poem that collapses into prose, a short story that expands into a novel. And often, so often, it’s a nothing pretending to be a something; a self-indulgence pretending to be an enigma; a love of language betraying you into simply putting words down because they’re words; an experiment that promises to rewrite literary history but fails even as you’re writing it. You learn to deal with that stuff, too.
4. What was your writing process for Em and the Big Hoom? Do you prefer this method of writing?
I retired from active journalism to write Em and the Big Hoom. I was forty and I thought it was time to give it my best shot. I made a pact with the universe. I would write a thousand words a day, every day, and I would not brush my teeth until I had written those words. But once they were done, the rest of the day would be mine. And so I wrote a thousand words a day for two and a half years, all in longhand because that’s how I write, longhand for the first draft, then read it aloud, then key it in, then read it again . . .
I had 750,000 words at the end of that, give or take 100,000. I then decided that I would stop writing and give myself a few months off and then read again. I did and began to read and found, to my horror, that it was bad stuff. It reeked of all my influences, my predecessors, my gurus, my library, my archive. But just when I was about to give up, I stumbled on a bit of writing that sounded like me, that I thought I could put my name to. I wiped up my tears and blew my nose on my sleeve and folded the page over. Then I read on and found another bit and another bit and when I was done, I had unearthed about 20,000 words from the morass. These I rewrote and found that I could link them up, make sense of them.
And then it was done.
I do not prefer this method of writing. I want to put a fat-nibbed pen to paper with an interesting nap and feel the words come pouring out of me. I want to be able to send this off to my publishers and have them write back to me saying that they are going to offer me millions of dollars for the honor of publishing me. But since this does not happen—at least not yet, no harm hoping—I will make do with the method I use now.
5. This story is told in nonlinear time—was this a craft device of your storytelling? Or did it occur organically as you wrote?
There is nothing organic about writing a novel. There is nothing organic about a cake. You make a cake. You set out to break eggs and sift sugar and flour together and all the rest of that. No cook ever claims that a cake happened organically. We would laugh at them if they did. So, no, very little about Em and the Big Hoom was organic. It was all planned and orchestrated and devised, down to the number of chuckles. . . . I am going to the other extreme, now, no?
I think sometimes you plan some things and some things you’re handed and since most of what authors tell you is post facto, you should be very careful about believing them because they will always tell you that the good stuff was their own nature and the bad stuff was nurture.
6. There are so many wonderful, unexpected nicknames in the novel, yet we never learn our narrator’s name. Why is this?
I know. I kept thinking, name him, name him, come on, Jerry, name him, and he just kept slipping away.
No, that sounds fey.
I didn’t name him. I’m sorry. What can I say?
7. The novel draws from journal entries and letters, it bears such specific knowledge of the Mumbai hospital system and pharmacology. What kind of research did you conduct for this project?
My mother was not well. I was terrified I was going to end up mad. I wanted to know what I was in for so through my life I read almost anything about mental health with a sick fascination. I read the pop psychology and I read Freud—whatever I could lay hands on. I read Mary Barnes and R. D. Laing. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Psychopathia Sexualis. The rest I lived.
Not much research, I’m afraid. Just lots of memories to be retrieved and to be reinvented as fiction.
8. You are Goan, not unlike Augustine. Can you speak to your own religious upbringing as it relates to the faith of your characters?
I think we’re all a little binary when we think about God/dess.
Either you’re for or against, and if you’re for, you must tell me your religion, denomination, and degree of belief before I agree that you’re worthy of being called a believer. If you’re not for, then you must be either an atheist or an agnostic and you probably went to a fancy college and watch films with subtitles.
I don’t think it works that way. I think religion is a process, one of the many processes we put ourselves through. God/dess is far too all-pervasive a trope, a leitmotif of culture, to be dismissed easily.
No, I’m saying this all wrong. One day, I listen to a Gregorian chant and something moves and shifts inside me, and I am transported and I believe. Then I pick up the newspaper and I read of some senseless cruelty inflicted in the name of religion and I think, “Include me out.” Then I translate an old Marathi saint-poet and in her anguish and in her ecstasy, I get a whiff of truth. I don’t have any answers, any concrete answers. I can only tell you that religion is a challenge for me and it is not one that I am ever sure I will be able to confront without it changing who I am and I am terrified of change, even if I am deeply tempted by it, and know that it is inevitable anyway.
9. There are several instances in Em and the Big Hoom where a character transcends or works beyond the boundaries of their particular class status. Augustine, for example, being the first in his family to hold an office job. Is that something you’ve witnessed recently in Mumbai? How has the economic reality shifted since the timing of your novel?
Every city is a machine for reinvention of the self. We come to the city not to stay who we are, but to become another person. Sometimes the aim of the émigré is simple: I want to be rich. Sometimes it is tragic: I want not to be poor. Sometimes it is epic: I want to change the way the world is. But no one comes to the city because she is content with who she is. And so my city, Bombay, is filled with people who want something else. Most arrive with just the idea that it can’t get worse. They stay which means it hasn’t. A slum in my city is most people’s idea of hell. So the city’s slums produce an even more terrifying question: what was the countryside like that this is better?
The cities of India are all about firsts. Everyone is pushing themselves to be something else, someone else. And the intensity may be different, the means may be different, the ambitions may be different, but the impetus is the same.
10. Of all of the character’s voices, which was the easiest to write? The most difficult? Which is your favorite?
I honestly cannot remember. I find it difficult to say. I love writing. I really do. But it is tough work and everything about it is tough. But what is the most terrible thing is trying to find your own voice. Which is why interviews like this one, which demand self-revelation, make my stomach clench. And yes, I know, we reveal ourselves in each speech act. Each time I write or speak, I tell you a little more about who I am.
- We end up learning so much about Em’s personality through reading her letters and journal entries, especially insight into her feelings about The Big Hoom. When we read The Big Hoom’s return letters, what insight do they give us, if any, into the man that he is?
- When our narrator is a teenager, he takes a trip to Goa alone with The Big Hoom. While Augustine is describing a doctor he once worked for and admired, our narrator confesses: I had discovered The Big Hoom’s Hero. I did not want my hero to have a hero (p. 82). Why do you think that had been his reaction? Have you ever felt similarly about a hero of yours?
- Our narrator is forthcoming about the fear of his own looming “madness.” In order to combat this fear, he takes detailed inventory of his emotions and their reasoning. Are there moments when you must catalog your own feelings in order to better understand them? Is this a possible function of Em’s journaling in her early life?
- When Em reveals that’s she emptied the family’s emergency funds, it is one of the few times we see The Big Hoom react emotionally. Why do you suppose this was such a violation to him? Was his reaction warranted? Why?
- Given the instability in the Mendes household, we rarely have a glimpse of Em being unkind to The Big Hoom. What are some ways that Em expresses her love for her family? What are some ways that her “madness” works to bring her family closer together?
- What is your impression of Em’s mother role in her illness?
- There are many different faiths and belief systems represented throughout the novel, though our narrator expresses his own religious inclinations twice: once when he addresses his atheism and another time when he is briefly moved by “the blue hand” of Hinduism. What are some ways that faith manifests for other members of the Mendes family?
- What do you think is the significance of naming and nicknaming in the novel?
- There is a scene in which our narrator returns home from a terrible workday and is greeted by Em in a particularly manic state. In a moment of frustration he calls his mother “a disgusting bitch,” and later wonders if she recalls it and was hurt by it. In this scene, and in others, do you think Em knows more than she lets on?
- Toward the end of the novel, when The Big Hoom is in Brazil on a business trip, Em’s children make a difficult decision concerning her short-term care. Would you have done the same? Why or why not?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a shame, I have not discovered Jerry earlier! I have not even heard or seen this book anywhere, despite all the literary awards it had won. If not for Amazon’s sudden recommendation, I would not have come across this book at all. But, better late than never. I am glad to have found it. This was not just a book, it was an experience which will stay with me forever. Pinto writes this searing autobiographical tale about the havocs his mother’s illness wreaks in his family, and how they struggle to cope with it. He had carried his torch bravely to shed light on the dark areas of his life, in just 235 pages. There are many stories in this story, revolving around EM, the mother. The story is about ‘mental illness’, a topic which is still taboo and looked down upon by our otherwise modern society. It is something we always hear happening to someone else, but never to us or our loved ones. It is something we believe we know about, but we don’t. We only see the superficiality around mental illness. We never tried peeling off the layers and tried to accept it like any other physical ailment. We stigmatized mental illness with guilt, bad omen, black magic, and other superstitious stuff, so much that people feel humiliated to be associated with it. The story is about a middle-class family living in a 1BHK apartment in Mahim, Bombay, who just wishes to function like a normal family. A family who sit down for chats and a copious amount of tea at any time of the day. A family who can count on its fingers the number of happy carefree days they had. This story is about a mother, who would seem cool and modern with her puns, open-minded discussion on sex and dating if she hadn’t frequently wished to die. Whose bipolar condition makes her so unpredictable that one moment she is smoking a beedi and chatting with her family, and the next moment she slits her wrists. A mother who was first diagnosed with a nervous breakdown, depression, schizophrenia, mania, and finally bipolar. This is about a sister, who silently gives all her time, effort, and energy to her family. She just keeps doing what is expected of her, without feeling pity or helpless. This is about a father, who is resilient and strong enough to see the love of his life wither away from a mental illness. A father who re-writes all these plans for a secure future, so that he could afford his wife’s medical treatment for years. A father who explains to his young son that mental illness is just like diabetes. This story is about a grandmother who thinks she could find a way to her daughter’s this thing (mind). This is about a guy who likes stories and probes everyone for details. A guy, who listens to his mother’s stories to find out the first sign of nervous breakdown and manic depression. A guy, who is torn between his love for his mother and frustration of dealing with a mental illness patient day in and day out, and often looks for refuge in poetry sessions, movies, and book readings. A guy, who is open about his mother’s illness and yet clenches his fist when someone asks if his mother is mad. A guy who occasionally thinks if his mother is acting and making everything up just to console himself. Pinto’s debut is a work of love, patience, hope, helplessness, and immense sufferings. Go, read it. You will do yourself a favor.
Narrated by Em's son, Em and the Big Hoom offers far more than his perspective alone. As the son informally interviews members of his family about their lives, he gives the reader a panoramic view of a family affected by mental illness. The emotions involved are so complex, so complicated. I felt sorry for these characters. Not pity, but more of an eye-opening, empathetic learning experience. Handled sensitively and without judgment, a voice is given to secret, uncomfortable things the children hope for as they age and recognize their parents' mortality. There is bitterness, fear, and anger; but also plenty of love and humor. When Em is speaking, the narrative feels scattered, because that's what her mind is like. And you know, sometimes that can come across a little... inauthentic? Gimmicky? But not here. Here it works. Pinto has brilliantly sewn together all of his characters' experiences. I wanted to pull an all-nighter when I was reading this. You know when a friend comes over unexpectedly, or maybe calls late at night with something important to say, because something is going on in his or her life that must be shared so your friend can move forward? You end up listening for hours and hours, not watching the clock. Before you know it, the sun has come up. That's how this book felt. I was compelled to keep reading, to keep listening to the story. I felt like it was confiding in me. Em and the Big Hoom has just enough dark humor to keep the reader from feeling overwhelmed. It shines as a captivating and moving portrayal of the impact of mental illness on a family. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review.