Ever since 2013 when I chanced upon it, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom has been a standard gift for my friends and students. And that isn’t only because of the author’s evocative cover illustration and art work.
Em is Imelda, the dissolute, raving star of the story – deliciously irreverent, feisty, self-destructive and cruel in her madness. Augustine is her Angel Ears, referred to as The Big Hoom by their two growing children. Writing with unapologetic honesty, Pinto shows the collapse of inner worlds after “someone turned on a tap”. A small Bombay flat fills up with predatory whispers, both real and imaginary.
Mine is a typical middle class Bengali family with pride-studded vertebrae. Addiction, depression, personality disorders, schizophrenia and suicide have taken their toll, but we have always preferred basking in the warm incandescence of accomplishments. The cataclysmic backlash of mental illness whether on patients or care givers has never made it to the table. When I came up for air after my first non-stop reading of Em and The Big Hoom, I realised it had been a demonising and yet humanising experience, an unforgettable trial by fire.
Two days ago, I returned to the book for a second read. This time I lingered on more than the dangerously familiar – the smells and tastes of a Bombay I had not known in the 1970s, peripheral characters with delightful “thissings” about them and humour , both gentle and astringent in the less electrifying moments.
Em would be amused to know I drank several cups of tea as well.
Bubla Basu is a teacher and a frequent contributor to Scroll.in.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.