Em and the Big Hoom is a disturbing book. Mildly so, but disturbing all the same, especially for an erstwhile student of Clinical Psychology. It was like opening that disconcerting Pandora's box all over again. A box I had chosen to put a lid on years ago because I cannot deal with the dark beyond the light, the yin beside the yang. Two years of formal MA education, hoards of case studies and a brush with schizophrenia within the family (when my late aunt's hallucinations were much fodder for family gossip) weren't enough for me to learn a stoic acceptance of the blackness we all carry within.
With Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto (yes, yes, another Indian English author. I can't seem to be able to dodge them) artfully opened the can of worms and let them writhe and wriggle all over my body and my mind. However, finishing E&TBH was a mini victory because is my first 'free will' book after a long time of reading for reviewing. Well, it wasn't entirely a 'free will' read because my husband, Viren, has been badgering me to read it ever since he got past the first chapter of the book. E&TBH is one of those rarer works that has appealed to us, who, otherwise have vastly disparate tastes in books. The last one, I think, was The Language of Flowers.
E&TBH is, as Kiran Desai succinctly sums it up, a 'rare and brilliant book'. It is the story of a middle class Catholic family of four living in the cramped confines of a 1BHK in Mahim, Mumbai, trying to find a semblance of sanity in this insane city. The narrator's mother Em, or Imelda is a patient of manic-depression and the rocker of the boat of their lives, while the Big Hoom, the teenaged narrator's father, their anchor. Life is a constant game of toss for the father, the 17-year-old narrator and his older sister, Susan, who never know if they will wake up to an Em, who will be a foul-mouthed, beedi-smoking, chai slurping, maniacal creature one day, or a pitiable person in the throes of such viscous depression that she wants to kill herself.
From what I understand from some other reviews of the book, E&TBH is a 'memoir, cleverly disguised as fiction'. That is easy to deduce really, because no one, who hasn't been a caregiver for the mentally ill, can write the way Pinto does. Behind those darkly humorous lines, is a deep understanding of the way the mentally ill are. There's a sensitive mix of empathy, fatigue that comes from caring for the ill and frustrations from fighting the taboos that surround mental illness. The characters are beautifully detailed - Em with her normal, manic and depressed shades, the Big Hoom with his stolid, manly manners, Mae, the grandmother, with limited emotions and words, Susan, with her composure and the narrator, himself, with his sadness, confusion and constant pendulum-ing between love and hatred for his mother.
Pinto's style is effortless and his language, casual without being flippant. He is funny-sad, like only 'mad'ness can be, and just as you begin to enjoy some laughs, he punches your gut with a poignant point. And there's plenty of those. His use of typical Anglo-Indian slang lends authenticity to the story, and his plot zigzags from the past to the present and back to the past again. The past speaks of Em and the Big Hoom's courtship, and their present, about their race against Em's condition. The book ends rather anti-climatically, as real life most often does. The lack of drama is almost poetic, making for an apt end to Pinto's remarkable book, which is a story of madness that is life, and life that is madness.