Both books I’ve read this month—Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom—have been excellent. And the year has only just begun!
Em and the Big Hoom is a moving, funny account of living with a mentally ill, suicidal mother—Em of the title—told from the point of view of her son.
How do you grow up coping with a manically depressed mother? Not knowing how she will be when you come in through the front door: cheerful, manic, cutting, smutty, paranoid or affectionate. Then there are those really awful times when the children—the son, and his sister Susan—come home to find their mother drenched in blood because she has slit her wrists. The son, who remains nameless, says, “Home was where others had to gather grace. Home was what I wanted to flee.” It falls to the Big Hoom, the steady, patient father, to hold the family together.
The book revolves around the mother—or mud-dha, as she refers to herself, with a tinge of contempt. She loves her children, but being a mother does not come easily to her. “‘You were my two dividends, yes? Don’t you forget that. … But what an investment. My life.’” She dispenses advice to her children on everything, including sex. And she also has a sharp eye for all the social hypocrisy and double standards, such as young women being warned about men, and then being expected to submit to them once they’re married. But there is a deep vulnerability in Em, which leaves her open to debilitating depressions—“my madness”, as she describes it.
The son loves her with “a helpless corroded love” and tries to understand why and how she had begun to fall apart. He looks for answers in her old letters and diaries, but the reasons for her madness remain elusive. There are some good times when the illness leaves Em alone, and the family gets on “happily and humdrummily”. But then the depressions and paranoia start again. The son describes it as walking with his mother through a meadow in sunlight, feeling comfortable and secure, when without warning, she slips into quicksand and starts to sink as he watches helplessly.
Jerry Pinto’s ear for dialogue makes the glimpses into the life of this family so real and so raw that I sometimes forgot that I was reading a novel. His description of mental illness and the so-called cures are so vividly described that, as a reader, I found it unbearable when Em came home after her electric shock therapy (thankfully, the only time this therapy was used). She becomes a shadow of herself, quiet, polite—and absent. But the depression is real and almost impossible to comprehend from the outside: “Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again.”
The book also has a lot of humour in it. One of my favourite scenes is when Em’s mother Bertha and her aunt Louisa decide to take things in hand and get the Big Hoom to finally propose to Em. The conversation between the three of them is a delight, especially with Bertha’s habit of using “this-thing” and “thissing” throughout, leaving the listener to figure out what she is saying. Looking back at this incident many years later, Bertha tells the children, “It’s a good thing we went, because otherwise they would still be this-thing and you two would not be thissing”.
But the dominant force of the book—and the family—is Em. Em’s portrayal is so powerful that the other characters pale in comparison. She is funny, honest and outrageous, and can barely be contained within its pages. Her absence diminishes the book and the family.