All of us have a similar story in the recesses of our family closets. In mine, there is Chocolate Aunt. Well, not so much her, but her husband. I called him Biscuit Uncle. He would breeze in unannounced, always with a small packet of biscuits as a present for my mother, his affectionate little sister, and the siblings would tear it apart to share over a freshly brewed cup of coffee.
Biscuit Uncle was never a whiner. He had a high-pitched laugh and his eyes shone and danced when he laughed. His jokes never varied. They were about life’s ironies quoted in a literary context — of love gone awry, of the testiness of man-woman relationships, of the finality of death. There was an edgy laugh when he quoted his favourite lines from Wilde and Huxley.
As teenagers we believed our parents knew nothing about romance and its hyperbole as witnessed in Tamil cinema. Biscuit Uncle, however, did — that too with his wife who was not-all-there. He had stars in his eyes and a certain wonderment when he looked at her even after 50 years of married life. He adored her through her days of depression and medicated moodiness and supported her during psychiatric consultations. His death has left her in the care of their children and grandchildren, who have taken over where he left off.
The extended family and neighbours only witnessed the fierce protectiveness of Chocolate Aunt’s family, never looking behind the doors of its despair or frustration. They remain the normal example of family bonding and affection.
Now, readers of Em and the Big Hoom know better. Jerry Pinto, journalist, teacher and chronicler of warmer and finer aspects of life, lays bare the life of his parents — his resolute and loyal father, the Big Hoom, and the raging neurosis of Em, his mentally ill mother. This is the story of his childhood and adulthood under her frenetic parentage.
Pinto is equally baffled that his mother, the wild woman who would spew scorn and venom in her frenzied hours, was once a dutiful and responsible daughter.
She skipped college and started work to support her parents through her long years of singledom and after she married. Her Catholic upbringing allowed sex to be overtaken by loyalty and chastity. She stayed home for her children, and her son and daughter loved and hated her with bitter-sweet fierceness.
Yet the beedi-smoking, raging, suicidal Em was subjected to psychiatric treatment and her family, which grappled with her affliction in a manner both loyal and stoical, felt dysfunctional. The problem is not Em; it is her family and other denizens of a “normal” world who cannot fathom the madness of the mind and its capacity to subsume its chosen ones in a world of their own.
Em is a powerful person in her own right — there’s acid and humour in her words. She is alternately brazen, embarrassing the adolescent son, and prim in skirting sex with her husband; she berates her children cruelly, yet is unable to forget the odd insult they hurl in a rare outburst.
Pinto is rightfully in awe of The Big Hoom. He is the father, the Man, that epitome of responsibility and duty that every “Indian man” is expected to shoulder, soldiering manfully under the stress of his wife’s mood swings and the burden of being the sole “wholesome” parent for the author and his sister.
Pinto and sister rally around, too. Pinto is as stubborn as his mother as he prods for any clue to his mother’s crazed mind. He rejects the painful powerlessness of having no answers to her predicament, either in religion or in science. He then does what he can: asks questions. And Em tries her best to answer.
The book’s quivering restraint comes alive in bleak and warm spurts of humour, as Em responds in her fragmented, meandering manner about her youthful romance and her rising paranoid and suicidal tendencies. And when she falls into her depressions, Pinto scrambles for odd pieces of writing Em has left of her past, seeking answers and providing never-ending cups of tea to spur her to talk.
Pinto seems to understand, through tears and laughter, what it takes to cohabit with someone who is mentally ill. It is to coast from one storm to another. Nothing illustrates the burdens on a care-giving family in India better than Pinto’s recollection of life with his mother.
Pinto’s narrative is both brutal and beautiful. Perhaps the book and its writing are affirmation that families and people find different ways to cope with mental illnesses. Some are embittered. If you have the gift of writing, as Pinto does, you have found the poetic licence to cope.
EM AND THE BIG HOOM Author: Jerry Pinto Publisher: Rupa/Aleph Pages: 235 Price: Rs 495