Author, poet and journalist Jerry Pinto’s Em And The Big Hoom is a movingly funny take on dealing with mental illness

“I wanted to tell a story, and I wanted to do it well,” says Jerry Pinto, national award-winning writer (Best Book on Cinema for Helen: The Life And Times Of An H Bomb). On a visit to the city for the launch of Em And The Big Hoom, he talks about the book that was 25 years in the making. “I wrote nearly 7.5 lakh words — all in longhand — and then discovered I didn’t like it much. So I typed out the bits I thought I could live with, about 12,000 words, and it is in these that I found enough material to open out into a novel, one that is 95 per cent fiction, 95 per cent autobiography.” And the remaining 5 per cent, he says, is what the reader makes out of it.

Mania and moods

Set in 1980’s Bombay, Em And The Big Hoom is the story of a family where the mother, Em, battles a mental illness, and everybody else battles her mania and moods. The husband, the big Hoom, never loses control; the teenage children become stoic, not by choice, but by the lack of it (“there was no going in. And there was no going away”). And the son — the unnamed narrator (whose birth, the mother matter-of-factly tells him, gave birth to her depression) tries to find signs of the madness that engulfs his mother, “the trigger” as Pinto says, “where it all started, so that he can, possibly, avoid it himself”.

And so, he talks to Em in her lucid moments, when she’s not “a parody of herself”, to her mother and friends and husband; he reads her old letters and tries to piece together his whole mother from the fragments he recollects from his memory and others’.

And yet, despite depression being central to the book, it’s anything but a depressing read. It’s moving, yes, but also madly funny; and that’s what makes it so real. “If you try to construct something credible, it should have some sorrow, some laughter,” says Pinto. But the book, he says, is not a memoir; “I could not write a memoir, it would’ve been much more painful.” Plus, since it was fictionalised, “any time it grew bleak” he could always take refuge in fiction.

Learning to live

The book — with its beautiful, incisive prose, written without a hint of self-pity — Pinto discovered at 40, wasn’t going to be a catharsis. So he sets the novel dramatically in a 450-sq.ft apartment, where the characters are forced to “live and love and deceive within earshot of each other”.

He dates it to 1980’s Bombay, because “if you move time around, you are going to end up with an anachronism”. And the novel becomes a social commentary of that time, when the “mentally ill are simply mad”, when asylums for the mentally ill are “human dumping ground”, where the patients have no identity except being mad.

Except, some of these have not changed much over the years, as Pinto observed when he recently went to visit a suicidical friend in an asylum for the mentally ill. And yet, “we prefer not to talk about things; it is an endemic feature of Indian life. And not talking about becomes a problem”. “Mental health”, says Pinto, “is a lottery”. And when you’re the caregiver for someone with a mental illness, “you’re looking at the loser of that lottery”.

Jerry Pinto’s Em and the big Hoom was launched recently at Amethyst by the Prakriti Foundation. In conversation with Vandana Gopikumar of The Banyan and Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation, Pinto — after reading out poignantly funny passages from his book — said that “dealing with the mentally unwell was like looking through a refracting prism. Sometimes it was outrageously colourful, sometimes blown-up”. Vandana spoke about the stigma attached to mental illness. “There are no positive stories portrayed in the media; films too are very stereotyped. The solution lies in accepting wholeheartedly, and appropriately portraying people with differences.” And that can only come, said Pinto, “if you constantly examine the self and its shortcomings. Then, perhaps, you can accept other people’s differences.”

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