Loving a Parent with Mental Illness: Through Pinto’s Em & the Big Hoom

Can love be enough? This question lies at the heart of Em and the Big Hoom, a work of autobiographical fiction by Jerry Pinto.

Set in middle class Bombay, this story is unusual in many ways. The narrator is a 17 year old boy. We see how his home, his world constantly shifts in shape and form, attempting to make sense of Em, the narrator’s mother, in all her moods, in her swaying waves of highs and lows, on her worst and best days. One way of reading the story is to focus on the obvious – what it means to grow up around manic-depression.*

Another, deeper way is to see how the narrator, his sister Susan, and the Big Hoom (an affectionate endearment for the father), rallied around Em in a protective web of love, attempting to understand and see her through her blackest days.

The complex threads that are woven into the fabric of this novel are hard to unravel. We see the rock-like father, the Big Hoom who always knew what to do and how to take care of Em when the children were out of their depths, we see the narrator’s curious and inquisitive questions, his attempts at understanding his mother’s illness and its beginnings, its causes, his fears, the biggest of them being the fear of inheriting it genetically. But we see Em most closely, the novel successfully conveying the idiosyncratic nature of manic-depression, the difficulty in separating personality and illness, the dangers of both the extreme moods.

When did he first sense that his buttercup wasn’t whole? I don’t know. How did he deal with it when he first discovered that she needed to open up her veins, throw herself in front of a bus? I don’t know.

The narrator asks these questions about his father, realizing that there was little space to understand both the parents, in a childhood where Em’s survival took primacy. The curiosity about Em and her inner world, her moods, her anger and her confusing love, took up all the room for questioning and wondering. The novel attempts to puzzle out the Big Hoom’s devotion for Em, his unwavering affection and solidity in the face of so much unpredictability. The narrator astutely captures every child’s curiosity about zir** parents, but shows us why it was magnified so in his home and mind. In Em and the Big Hoom, this curiosity and wonder is mixed up with the desire to understand Em through the Big Hoom’s eyes, his capacity to see her as more than her illness.

For two or three days, we will all live with the knowledge that one of us is gulping for air, swallowing sobs, experiencing pain that will not let up. We will rearrange our lives so that someone is always with her.

Conversations, long and many, deep and humorous, tea, endless cups of tea, and beedis smoked by Em, the pleasures of existing in the world; we see the lives that are rearranged to adapt to uncertainty, the cherished moments of something akin to normalcy. Pinto’s careful examination of this home and family, designs a patchwork reality that blurs the boundaries between illness and personality, love and anger, compassion and fatigue. We come to feel the push and pull of these intertwined lives, and the work that goes into imagining and constructing their normal.

I tried to believe Em in everything she said. It was my act of faith, because I could see how the outside world immediately discounted whatever she said.

This ‘act of faith’ works its way through the narrator’s descriptions of his mother, as the writing delicately resists labels and judgment about Em’s parenting, avoiding blame and victimization, instead drawing attention to the person.

The compassion and sensitivity in the portrayal of Em is balanced with the knowledge of her illness in a way that resists any simplistic and categorical descriptions.

Symptoms, illness, caregiving, all of these words take a different and more intimate meaning when one sees the inner world of a family where a loved one’s mind inhabits its own reality. Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom reminds us again why fiction or memoir, especially when autobiographical, make us rethink our knowledge and certainties about mental health and the individuals and families that cope with them. Giving readers a chance to understand how deeply idiosyncratic mental illness can be, such accounts offer particular insights about caring for a loved one and growing up around illnesses of the mind.

*This terminology is consistent with the text, though bipolar disorder is the scientific name for the illness as it is recognized today, there have been disagreements within and outside the scientific community about the word ‘bipolar’ as an insufficient one for capturing the extent of the illness experience. The choice here is to honour the author’s use of terminology as expressed in the text.
**Ze/zir are gender neutral pronouns that do not assume to know the identity (gender, sexual or otherwise) of any person. They respect privacy, choice and diversity. Learn more at https://www.mypronouns.org/ze-hir/

(Excerpted from Em and the Big Hoom, written by Jerry Pinto, published by Aleph Book Company, 2012)

The Shrinking Couch or the author have no financial interest in the book, Em and the Big Hoom, nor have they been solicited by the author, publisher or any third party for publishing this article. This article is authored and published solely in the interest of promoting dialog around mental health and well being.

Amala Poli

Amala Poli is a literary scholar interested in the dialogue between literature and medicine. Deeply invested in the conversation about mental health in India, Amala’s research and creative interests are aligned with hopeful possibilities of breaking the stigma that surrounds illness.