Book review: Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

 This is a book about mental illness that is not mawkish or sentimental. The protagonist tells us about his mother’s descent into schizophrenia and the family’sresponse to it. The graph  of the illness is well mapped from  lucid moments, to the drug induced calm that gives the Mendes family two years of respite to the violent, irrational bursts of anger induced by the onset of an episode.

Life continues between these episodes as the Mendes family,the mother included, try hard to superimpose some semblance of order into this combustible situation that will soon become a permanent feature of their lives.

Em the protagonist’s mother is tough,violent,well read and smokes three packets of beedis a day.

Her hallucinations and wanderings are often irrational and no amount of Freud or delving into her srtcit Roman Catholic upbringing will explain why she sees twenty six foetuses suspended from the fan for  instance. In a grimly evocative  episode she she tries kill herself  yet becomes the nurturing gentle caregiver  to other patients in JJ hospital’s ward 33 where she is admitted and goes to happily when her bouts get out of control. She  senses when ‘Baba’ and  Susan need to study for their exams and April as we learn is a calm month in the Mendes household

The story is pared down to Mumbai’s Mahim, the local Brijawasi shop,’Granny’s’ visits,growing up in the seventies and eighties and the  four Mendeses clinging  on to each other as if to prove family love will defy any decline into madness.

When the locality boys tease the narrator for having amother who is a ‘yedi’ (mad ) his father explains he should think of his mother’s condition  like diabetes -you have to live with it and manage it.  

At the end Em dies and we feel the void as much as the protagonist does. The Big Hoom as the narrator’s father is referred to shows a stoic dignity through it all and is one character I wish I had gotten to know better.

It is an extremely well written book. It is controlled and well crafted yet it never hesitates to let  the emotion shine through. I think this is a definite must have on one’s bookshelf.

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