Monday, August 24, 2015

Em and the Big Hoom Book Review

Even though one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, ‘Em and the Big Hoom’, by Jerry Pinto definitely makes you question your resolve against doing so. The purple cover with the image of Em’s head, the dark edges and the gray paper, mimic a vintage look ensuring the cover artist and designer high praise.

To begin with, here’s the back cover book summary.

In a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen in Mahim, Bombay, through the last decades of the twentieth century, lived four love-battered Mendeses: mother, father, son and daughter. Between Em, the mother, driven frequently to hospital after her failed suicide attempts, and The Big Hoom, the father, trying to hold things together as best he could, they tried to be a family.

Essentially, ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ is a semi-autobiographical account from the view point of a son, living in a one BHK flat in Mahim, about his mentally unhealthy mother Imelda (Em), her illness – the causes, symptoms and in turn, its effect on the lives of the whole family, Augustine (Big Hoom), Susan, their daughter and of course Jerry, although he remains unnamed throughout the novel.

I feel that mental illness invokes fear, worry, despair, pain, sympathy and many other emotions, which at best help us to ensure a safe distance from feeling the person who suffers the same. It might be true or just merely hopeful of us, I can’t say for sure, however, in the case of the book, that’s what I felt was the motive of the author.

This novel revolves around the focuses on the depression of Em and in turn touches the topic of disturbed individuals. But, honestly what left me slightly disturbed was the fact that the whole story could have been told in much, much fewer words, without the need or necessity of the ramblings of the author.

It feels that ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ was written in an effort to make people aware about the burden of living with a mentally disturbed person and to make it a more relatable scenario, given the ‘taboo’ stature of mental illness.

However, having a similar experience of living with two such people, I know for a fact, that not every situation is similar or even easy to deal with and that might be a reason why I don’t like the lack of gravity that this book deals out. It just seems to be the latest addition to a long standing tradition of storytelling – the tale of a mentally unstable family member with the focus being shifted to the problems caused by her. And usually, it’s a good thing except when taken too far.

I don’t know how much is real and how much fiction but the character of ‘Em’ is definitely one of the most memorable ones I have read so far. According to the author, ‘Em’ doesn’t cuddle or sing lullaby to her children instead she’s keen on explaining the realities of life to her children. At times it might seem rather rude, but some of them are brilliant pieces of advice, if understood correctly. She loves to write which can be seen through scribbling on the margins of any book or scraps of paper that ‘Em’ has preserved in cloth bags to which the son and the daughter have unrestricted access. She seems in all ways a normal young woman of her time, and yet rather unconventional in her thoughts & actions on occasion. She has no qualms, for example, writing to her fiancĂ© about the fact that she isn't too keen on sex, and asking him whether that would be a deal breaker for the marriage! The Big Hoom is a patient, sensible, dependable and affectionate, and the years of responsibility have turned him stoic and taciturn and Susan is the graceful and reliable daughter.

We do not learn much about the narrator’s sister except her name and a little about her personality. What’s worse is that the narrator’s father, even though he’s on the title, is given very little story space. We get to know bits of his history, and we see his loyalty to his family, but we never get around to understanding him much. The story of what a man might go through as he watches his wife turn into a bipolar, manic depressive and suicidal person, I feel, is something worth exploring further.

With not much of a plot to bank on, Pinto has tried very hard to turn a series of life incidences into a book. A lot of incidences of ‘Em’ have been provided, which at times seemed unnecessary and the author seemed to go on a rant about his life and how scared he was about becoming like his mother, so much so that he even went to a psychiatrist to check out any early symptoms.

However, I must say it’s an easy read; the language is simple and conversational, with the presence of sarcasm and not-so subtle dark humour. The author has made a decent effort to keep everything frank and not urge any sympathy, but I feel he overdid the casualness of it all. The story being part fiction puts the reader in a certain dilemma as one isn’t able to understand which part really happened and which can be put to the imagination of the author. But the novel could be put down as a pretty decent effort towards being a tribute to Pinto’s mother.

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