Em and the big Hoom by Jerry Pinto is one of his most celebrated books. I think the clever title raises enough curiosity and then the fine writing just fuels it further. No wonder, most people who have read the book, liked it. In terms of pure writing skills, this is one of the best contemporary books that I have read.
The story of a boy growing up with a maniacally depressed mother is heart rendering. He recounts the incidents from her days – some days when she is fine and having tea with the family. The other days when she is not fine and can say and do anything – absolutely unpredictable. The story goes back and forth between the hospital, the small apartment in Mahim Mumbai and the diaries of Em as the protagonist calls her. Her name is Imelda but their children call her Em and the Father ‘The Big Hoom’. So, soon into the story, you know the title means the mother and the father.
The best part of the Story of Em and The Big Hoom is its storytelling. The way the protagonist keeps his presence subtle while being a part of the story almost puts you in his shoes. You feel his pain, his fears, his frustrations and his loneliness. I especially liked the section where he fears that the genes he inherited from his mother may make him go mad someday. Doctors cannot give him any assurances but only say if he lives without getting it in his 30s, he is least likely to get it after that. You feel his fear. You realize that every time he looks at his mother he fears he might become like her.
The relationships between the four members of the family are endearing. They are alone but they are together. The father who lives to provide for the family in the quietest in the family but still is the pillar of strength. The elder sister takes on the caretaker role effortlessly. The grandmother walks in and out occasionally.
From the pages of the diary of Em interspersed with conversations between the mother and the children, the life of the parents is recreated. Their romance takes you back to Bombay of the post-independence era when people used to work in offices and meet each other in the evenings. The strolls across the city, the coffee houses, and some rare dinner outings. You have to give it to the writing of Jerry Pinto that he literally takes you back in time, removing all the modern-day clutter.
Jerry also takes you to the village of Moira in Goa from where his father comes. Ironically, I was reminded of what people of Moira told me about a lot of them being mad. The story of his father going to Pune to study and landing up at a doctor’s clinic in Bombay and then making his life from there as a reasonably successful man is insightful. I am sure many of us in Jerry’s generation would identify with that kind of the story of our parent’s generation.
There is an insight into Catholic families of Bombay of those times. What happens when the breadwinner of the family wants to marry. The two elderly ladies drop into the prospective groom’s office to check him out. What is most important to them is that he is a Brahmin. Yes, though they have all converted to Christianity for worldly purposes, when it comes to marriages, the pre-conversion norms still apply.
The things that Em speaks when she is in her physic state are plain, simple, blunt and true. The language does not matter to her then. It makes you wonder what it would be like if all of us spoke our minds the way only mad people do. Would we live more lightly – less of lies to carry on our shoulders?
Buy Em and the big Hoom by Jerry Pinto at Amazon India
It is a small book that comes with endorsements from Amitava Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and Kiran Desai. The cover of Em and the big Hoom has a beautiful Gond painting-like image of a woman, and similar artwork can be seen in between chapters.
It is a story well told, in nuanced layers. Read it just for that.