Book Review: ‘Em and The Big Hoom’
The title of Jerry Pinto’s new novel Em and The Big Hoom hints at a children’s adventure story, something to do with avenging pirates and monsters perhaps, except that the tale, based loosely on Pinto’s own life, is far murkier. The drawing on the elegant cover page hints at some of the unravelling that lays within, a profile of a young woman filled with tiny, obsessively drawn circles in no seeming pattern. The image is intriguing enough on its own, but this being one of the first imprints from David Davidar’s new publishing house Aleph, the cover also comes with the exhortations of a couple of award-winning authors (“Profoundly moving,” says Amitav Ghosh).
For the most part, the publishers needn’t have bothered. Pinto, a ubiquitous figure on the Mumbai literary scene, has crafted a neat memoir-disguised-as-novel that plumbs the depressive lows and fleeting highs of someone afflicted with a mental illness. It’s an unnamed narrator who charts the story of his Goan Catholic family of Em his mother, The Big Hoom his father, his sister Susan and himself, in their one-bedroom house in Mahim, as they bear witness to Em’s jagged mood swings. Em looms large over the entire narrative, a cackling, beedi-smoking, tea-slurping protagonist who eats Iodex, doesn’t like to bathe and speaks in maddening half rhymes confounding not only her family but frequently herself.
Like one of Em’s manic depressive moods, the novel swings between a love story, of Em and The Big Hoom in a Bombay of Bombelli’s and epistolary romances, and the debilitating paranoia of Em herself whose violent outbursts severely test the ties of familial duty. Pinto’s nimble hand is strongest in moments of dialogue, particularly when he is crafting the voice of Em as she instructs and intones and embarrasses, jumping from topic to episode to anecdote with no regard for propriety or logic. It’s a tumbling freewheel that you imagine could be deeply enchanting, annoying and revelatory all at once for the family who had to decode and parse it daily. If the novel stumbles, it is perhaps in attempting to be just that—a novel rather than a memoir. There is no particular plot driving the story forward, just the passage of time. As a result, the pace slackens towards the end, dependent—as you realise, just as all their lives were—on what was happening or not happening to Em.
Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto, Aleph, Rs495. Buy it from Flipkart.com.