Mother, Memory & Mumbai | Em and the Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Introduction

I’ve been searching for this book for two years, trying to get my hands on a copy without much success. Till I found the digitized version of the book on the Internet Archive this afternoon, and thus successfully immersed myself in the storytelling of Jerry Pinto for the rest of my Sunday.

It becomes clear almost instantly that this is a tale that is extremely personal. This isn’t some specific trait in the book itself, but an amalgam of several features: the first-person narrator, the creative use of dialogue, the emotional responses, and the anecdotal knowledge attached to every interaction. Pinto makes you very aware, right from when he first mentions Sir JJ Hospital, that what you’re reading is a part of him. A little bit of research after reading the book confirmed this for me: while this is a piece of fiction, there are blurred lines between the source of his inspiration and the words that find themselves on paper. Pinto’s own mother suffered from bipolar disorder, and the original version of this story was accurate to a fault, leading to its abandonment. A rigorous editing process (clearly) led to a draft that was originally 750,000 words being cut down to its final form (definitely way lesser than that number). Everyone knows these nuggets about Pinto and his writing, and there are enough interviews available on the internet to indulge you more.

I’d like to focus on what made the book special to read for me. There are a few spoilers ahead, and I do hope you won’t mind them. If you’re going to stop reading this piece here because of those spoilers, here is a short summary of my “review”: please read the book, for it is a fine piece of literary fiction that will warm the cockles of your heart and take you on a journey where you know about the horrors that lie ahead, but you wish to go on nonetheless.

Moving ahead.

Plot Summary

The story centers around the narrator, his sister Susan, his mother: Em, his father: the big Hoom, and his Grandmother. Em has suicidal tendencies and suffers with issues with mental health. The book is told through a series of interviews, conversations, and anecdotes from the narrator’s interactions with Em and the big Hoom. Em’s health forms a large part of the narrative structure and arc, forming the focal point of a story about a family that is collectively navigating the human condition.

I found three things particularly poignant about the way this story was told

Conversations

Writing in past tense, the narrator never puts himself at the center of any part of the story, except where he experiences grief. Most of the story is told through conversation, which accomplishes a few things. First, it moves the plot forward naturally, without much effort. The narrator at no point defines a moment of time when these conversations are taking place, and the progression of the conversation serves a useful tool to examine Em’s condition in all of its phases. Mental health isn’t a linear, tangible concept, the way physical health is, and Pinto uses conversation to showcase the highs and the lows of her condition. Second, it allows for the narrator to insert reflections on what he’s just heard at any point of time – enabling for engagement with the narrator’s character. I appreciated the use of conversation as a tool because it allowed for us to get a better glimpse of the narrator’s thoughts without being stuck through pages and pages of reflective material. Finally, it allowed for the creation of character voices in a manner that’s unique to conversational tales. In introducing characters: Susan, the Big Hoom, and even Granny, Pinto is able to give them a unique inflection – in their tone, in the manner they speak, and the value they add to the discussion taking place. Em’s personality contrasts the Big Hoom’s in subtle ways, and Susan’s relationship with the narrator develops through things said but left unsaid – especially toward the latter half of the book, when there are multiple episodes of grief. It also allows for a more clear picture of character consistency: Granny’s inability to string together sentences in English throughout the book speaks to her own history and the various languages she thinks in and hears.

Love and Helplessness 

A universally accepted fact is that it is difficult to see the ones you love suffering. A mature understanding of this helplessness one faces at times is the realization that there is only so much one can do; and with mental health, it is often understood that some battles are personal – and are confronted personally. The narrator gets exposure to this in his youth, which naturally leaves an impression on him for the rest of his life – and you get a sense for the depth of that pain of helplessness where Pinto describes an interaction with Em on one of his hospital visits after she suffers through an evening. He sits by her and holds her hand, in an attempt to provide her with some comfort. Em acknowledges this act, but in acknowledging it so, pushes the narrator forward to doing his own work – rather than sitting by her and watching her. That scene was particularly numbing, and Pinto’s description of seeing his mother suffer shines through here, along with the recognition that the narrator is caught in two minds about moving forward and staying back.

This helplessness also shines through in an attempt to reconstruct Em’s life through the novel as best as possible to try to find a trigger for her suffering. At various junctures, and in different circumstances, the narrator comments: perhaps this is when things go awry – to figure out a tangible externality that impacted Em so. We leave the book without full knowledge of Em’s condition, of what her trigger was, and whether she’s always felt this way. His understanding of nuance in mental health, of how sometimes there is no definite moment, or definite circumstance you can point to for how you are feeling, and the complexity of brain science shone through. This investigation into Em’s condition is left incomplete, and it feels like that was deliberate – a decision I fully endorse.

Loss

Loss is a part of the book. It is ingrained in every chapter, every story that the narrator and Em recount. The loss of memory, Em’s slow deterioration, and eventual death. Loss is first presented to us as a metaphor: pianos that were thrown from boats when Catholics migrated to India. That pain, that loss of music, it pokes at you in subtle ways throughout the book before culminating in the final few pages. Nobody knows how to respond to this loss, and there is no appropriate response – and you can see the confusion that spreads through Susan, the big Hoom, and the narrator (presumably Jerry) – in their decision to consume alcohol instead of tea, before realizing tea suits them better, in the copious amounts of food they’ve ordered. Pinto completes this story the only way it should have ended – with Em’s life being told to an extent, with mystery over parts of her that nobody understood, and parts nobody will understand. Humans are complicated beings, and Pinto is not worried about hiding from that truth.

Additional Remarks

It is pretty evident that there is a lot of love in the book itself. The authenticity of the story shines through at all points – there is no question about that. Pinto reflects on Bombay in a manner that unique to Bombay authors, something I found when I read Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City as well. Bombay is a city with a confluence of souls – an understated part of that city that reveals itself only when you stay there for sometime and revel in its personality. In several ways: in interactions with minor characters who make recurring appearances, in the description of Em’s household and her childhood upbringing – that is brought out. And it’s beautifully done.

Pinto also tackles taboo subjects – like sex, with an aloofness that allows for it to seep into regular conversation in the narrator’s household. Em’s personality is a large part of this, but you can see the distinction in which a mother brings it up with her son, viz a viz a father – who gives him an encyclopedia and explains things to him. There is humour, but you need to search for it, and this contributes to some of that.

Conclusion

A wholly befitting ***** (5 stars). Phenomenally written, with a journey that comes from the heart. I choked up repeatedly, which is not what I had in mind for this evening, but I would gladly do this all over again.

Let me know what you think!

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