When I picked up this book by Jerry Pinto last month, it had already won a string of awards. Some books, upon which accolades are showered, do not live up to their reputation. Probably, it could be because of our expectations that rise with each award the book wins. This is not the case with Em and the Big Hoom. It lives up to all the glittering endorsements showered on it by Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai and many others. It is simple enough, with a limited cast of convincing characters, for anyone to read. At the same time, it is deep enough, with crystal-cut prose, for the seasoned literary readers. It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel.
The story is honest, touching, textured and poignant. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make you think. It will make you kinder. However, it is evident the book was not written to make you do all this. It is just an account of a young boy and the drama of his family in Mumbai. A bumbling manic-depressive mother who chain-smokes cheap beedis, a stoic father who tries to keep the family together and a sister who is as lost as him live with the narrator in a one BHK (bedroom-hall- kitchen).
“If there was one thing I feared as I was growing up . . .No, that’s stupid. I feared hundreds of things: the dark, the death of my father, the possibility that I might rejoice the death of my mother, sums involving vernier calipers, groups of schoolboys with nothing much to do, death by drowning. But of all these, I feared the most the possibility that I might go mad too.”
“I didn’t go to bookshops to buy. That’s a little bourgeois. I went because they were civilized places. It made me happy there were people who sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote and there were other people who devoted their lives to making those words into books. It was lovely. Like standing in the middle of civilization.”
“Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again.”
Sentences like the ones above make you want to hug the little narrator and tell him things are going to be okay but you know they are not. As long as the society stigmatizes mental illness, the pleas of not just the ill but the caregivers too fall on deaf ears.
While our country’s medical aid and support have improved in leaps and bounds in the field of physical illnesses, little has been done to improve the lot of the mentally ill. Isn’t it time to do something for them?
About the Author:
Jerry Pinto is a Mumbai-based Indian writer of poetry, prose and children’s fiction in English, as well as a journalist. His noted works include, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (2006) which won the Best Book on Cinema Award at the 54th National Film Awards, Surviving Women (2000) and Asylum and Other Poems (2003). His first novel Em and The Big Hoom was published in 2012.