Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up.
I tend to approach books about mental illness with caution, I rarely write about my own experiences, my appetite for memoirs, eagerly fed in the years following my diagnosis as bipolar, has been long exhausted and I tend to look askance at novels that bleed evidence of well-intentioned but distanced research. The best fiction, I’ve found, comes from those who have been close to but not caught inside the maelstrom of mania or the plunging darkness of depression—like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, the third section of Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room or, the book I just finished, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. These are books that touch on a condition, albeit relatively manageable, that has been my companion most of my life, books that seem familiar and strange at once. Even if they are all charged with a measure of compassion and dark humour, they have the power to disturb and unsettle me because they remind me how disconnected, pained and even oblivious the sufferer can be when caught in the worst waves of the disorder, but, even more upsetting, I catch a glimpse of myself from the outside, of how I must appear to those around me when I’ve been most morbid, morose or, as Em would say, “mad.”
Drawing on life with his own mother who suffered from a severe form of manic depression, one that resisted the treatments available, Jerry Pinto offers a bittersweet love story that is also an introspective coming of age story and a searing portrait of the way mental illness can create a vortex around which a family can be tossed and turned—a cyclone that pushes away the outside world and makes “normal” life an impossible dream. At the heart of the tale is a small Roman Catholic Goan family tucked into the mosaic of late twentieth century Bombay, India’s largest city. The unnamed narrator and his sister Susan share a tiny one bedroom apartment in with their parents Imelda and Augustine Mendes , fondly referred to as Em and the Big Hoom. Although at one time their prospects might have promised a more generous standard of living, all changed as Em’s illness progressed. Swinging widely between deep suicidal depressions and expansive, unpredictable and emotionally abusive mania punctuated by rare episodes of normal, she dominates both the cramped living space and their reality. In the midst of the storm, their stoic father is a fount of calm reserve, their rock, the hint of stability to which the children cling.
Pinto’s narrator is an uncertain, emotionally sensitive character, charged with not only recounting the surreal experience of managing life, adolescence and early adulthood with his difficult and unusual and wildly eccentric mother, but with re-imagining a time before mental illness claimed her moods and mind, before the electrical currents started racing uncontrolled—“flashing and sizzling”—through her brain. Relying on Em’s own, occasionally lucid recollections, and scraps of the diaries and letters she compulsively wrote but rarely mailed, he tries to piece together a picture of her life as a young woman, forced to go to work in her teens to support her family rather than going to college as she hoped, then pushed into becoming a stenographer. She meets her future husband while they are both working in the same office; their courtship is prolonged and simple.
His father’s past our protagonist approaches more cautiously. The Big Hoom is his hero and, if he is seeking the ordinary behind his irrational mother, he does not want to risk learning that his father’s calm exterior is a façade. A father and son trip to Goa provides the backdrop for an exposition of the Big Hoom’s remarkable resolve and determination, tracing his inadvertent arrival in Bombay where, without his family’s knowledge, he stayed on and began working until he could he could afford to go to school and earn an engineering degree. He was the first of his village to make good in the outside world. But for his son he very much remains an enigma, and as a result, so do many of the social norms that are distorted by his erratic upbringing:
At that point I realized what it meant to be a man in India. It meant knowing what one could do and what one could only get done. It meant being able to hold on to two patterns simultaneously. One was methodical, hierarchical, regulated and the outcomes depended on fate, chance, kings and desperate men. The other was intuitive, illicit and guaranteed. The trick was to know when to shift between patterns, to peel the file off the table and give it to a peon, to speak easily of one’s cousin the minister or the archbishop. I did not think I could ever know what these shifts entailed, and that meant, in essence, that I was never going to grow up.
Back at home, Em remains an unpredictable force of nature. As her children get older, eventually moving on to post-secondary educations and careers, they remain essential to her immediate circle of care. With their father, and occasionally their grandmother, they take turns balancing each other off through her ups and downs. It’s a physically and emotionally draining routine:
We never knew when the weather would change dramatically with Em. You’re vulnerable to those you love and they acknowledge this by being gentle with you, but with Em you could never be sure whether she was going to handle you as if you were glass or take your innermost self into a headlock. Sometimes it seemed part of her mental problem. Sometimes it seemed part of her personality.
She could be erratic, intense, loud and obscene, often embarrassing her children. Responding with a disapproving, “Em!” would only further her efforts to shock. However, as difficult as the manic episodes were to endure, especially for the narrator who seems to take it all so personally, the other bipolar extreme was even worse:
I don’t know how to describe her depression except to say that it seemed like it was engrossing her. No, even that sounds like she had some choice in the matter. It was another reality from which she had no escape. It took up every inch of her. She had no time for love or hate, fatigue or hunger. She slept ravenously but it was a drugged sleep, probably dreamless sleep, sleep that gives back nothing.
Add frequent suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and an inability to leave her home unattended, the Mendes family are caught in an endless nightmare.
But for all that, this is a beautiful, warm and affectionate tale, told with generosity and gentle humour. Em’s mind-spinning divergent monologues capture the off-the-rail ramblings of mania with remarkable room filling intensity, but a very human, vulnerable portrait of the woman behind the illness is preserved. However, the real magic of Em and the Big Hoom lies in the narrative voice. Pinto captures the son’s self-conscious guilt—the awareness that his mother’s illness forces him to think and talk about himself and then feel badly about it. He wants to tell his mother’s story, but of course it can’t be extricated from his own. She stirs conflicted sentiments. Bitterness. Anxiety. An impossible love. The illness is endlessly exhausting on those around her, yet the narrator worries that he might share the same genetic tendency to mood disorder, lives in fear that his sister will marry and move out and that the Big Hoom will die leaving him to care for Em alone. Mentally he tries to prepare for this and wonders if he will ever have the confidence and maturity that stage of life will demand of him. It is this complicated tangle of emotion that carries this novel right through to its poignant, unexpected end.
Jerry Pinto is a well known writer, poet, translator and children’s author from Mumbai. He’s also a passionate mental health advocate; I was fortunate to hear him speak in Bangalore this past November. I know from my own experiences that the stigma around mental health is widespread, even in the western world where progress has been made but services are often difficult to access or too expensive, and a breakdown can easily cost jobs, careers and relationships. Books like this—entertaining and thought-provoking—are an important aspect of a necessary ongoing discussion.
Em and the Big Hoom is available in India and internationally from Penguin.