Em and the Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto, Penguin Books
“Dilation and curettage. I don’t know what exactly it is but it sounds like they open you up and put a young priest in there.” That’s Em (short for Imelda) talking with her teenaged son and daughter. “Anyway, only doctors do it. So when you’re knocked up, you’ll get a proper doctor to fiddle with your middle, you hear? No backstreet abortions for you.”
Not the usual motherly advice – but then, Em is no ordinary mother.
A North American reader casually picking this book off the shelf might not realize at first glance that its author, Jerry Pinto, is Indian, or that the story, a fully contemporary tale of a son coping with his mother’s bipolar disorder, is set in Mumbai. This is no intergenerational saga, colourfully exotic to North American eyes. And although it may be somewhat autobiographical (it is dedicated to an Imelda Pinto, née Tellis), it is not the usual semi-memoir of lives laid waste by suffering, either. Instead, Pinto finds a sweet spot, painting the picture of a whole family afflicted by their unusual mother’s disease without either soft-pedaling the difficulty or letting his characters descend into self-pity.
He does that by allowing Em to be a fully realized, unique character with a big personality — and by infusing the whole story with love.
Em’s wit enlivens the book. Pinto makes her wild and complex but also creates a dense family dynamic with each member a distinct individual, even as they all spin through the powerful orbit of Em’s personality and her illness. Much of the tale is told by her, relating her own history and that of the family to her son — sometimes while on a manic roll. She is a chain-smoker of beedis; when she is in the clutches of her disease she simply drops them half-smoked onto the floor. Her husband and children must occasionally make the agonizing decision to admit her to hospital when she becomes a danger to herself, but while she is there she is docile, patiently helping feed and care for the other patients. She is irreverent, sexually bold, and quick-tongued, referring to her kind and gentle husband as LOS (Limb of Satan) “because he was always tempting me to sin.” But it’s not a sin if you’re married, objects her daughter. “It’s always a sin according to the Wholly Roaming Cat Licks,” Em replies.
Pinto’s playful way with a phrase resonates delightfully with Irish (or Newfoundland) linguistic flair. It is a nice reminder that we readers of English are very fortunate beneficiaries of centuries of British imperialism, giving us access to many varieties of our language. Of course, that includes the vast literature of India, of which Em and the Big Hoom is one bright spark.
Elise Moser is the author of the YA novel Lily and Taylor and the editor of the forthcoming anthology of Quebec Writing Competition winners, Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec.
-photo: Fabio Campo, Flickr Creative Commons