Amala Poli // Is happiness always conditional to good health? Or does it redefine itself in the presence of chronic illnesses? Author Jerry Pinto’s work of autobiographical fiction, Em and the Big Hoom (2012), set in India in the 90s and narrated from the perspective of a teenage boy, explores the strong ties in a dysfunctional family setting. The narrator captures the particularities of his home through conversations over endless cups of tea with his mother Em, who suffers from manic-depressive illness, interspersing the narrative with his thoughts and reflections.
In his exploration of the necessity of narratives as a source of knowledge complementary to evidence-based understandings of mental illness, Glenn A. Roberts states, “A narrative stance attributes significance to each account, without seeking to reduce one to the other” (434). In Em and the Big Hoom, the narrator attempts to give the reader a fair picture of the knowledge he has about his mother Em in her many hues and moods, alternately offering us a sense of how the rest of the world perceived Em. The self-awareness and reflexivity of the narrator’s voice form the fabric of the text and the engagement with Em. Reflecting on his interest in details, even those considered trivial by most people, the narrator states, “I’ve been told that living with me would mean being trapped and slowly asphyxiated. Should I blame Em for this? Or would I have turned out just the way I am even if she had been whole and it had been possible to reach her?” (Pinto 43). The investment in details and curiosity about the long courtship and love shared by Em and their dependable father, the Big Hoom, is visible through the questions that the narrator and his sister ask Em in the text. Their conversations become ways to capture the incomprehensible and elusive aspects of Em’s behavior.
One of the compelling questions raised by the text pertains to genetic legacies, as the narrator expresses his fear that he would experience the illness at some point in his life. “Sometimes it was possible to catch a glimpse of how Em’s mind worked” (74). Here, caregiving and co-existence is interwoven with a need to unravel the puzzle of Em’s moods and understand her beyond manic-depression. The attention to Em extends to his thought patterns too, as fighting against his genes involved working out every feeling experienced by the narrator (209). This method of keeping a watch over his thoughts works its way into the style of the writing, which mixes intense focalization with a light humor.
Spending the entire span of one’s childhood in the tense atmosphere of an impending bout of moods, can blur the distinctions between person, mother, and illness, and the author attempts to capture this struggle in the narrative. “That’s not her, it’s her problem,’ Susan once said to me, when she found me weeping because of something Em had said. It became a way of escaping the sharpness of her tongue. But it also became a way of escaping her as a person” (135). Much of the existing literature has grappled with this immeasurability of the personality and the symptomatic in chronic mental illnesses.
The use of the anecdotal form in the narrative offers a new understanding of terms such as symptoms, illness, and caregiving. The narrator’s attempt to resist the challenges of living in a house fraught with uncertainties occurs through the desire for more knowledge about Em and her life. The narrator and his sister Susan’s interest in the love that persisted between Em and the Big Hoom, alongside the textual investment in detail, make the narrative a complex account of mental illness and struggle, but also of love and camaraderie in the face of an uncertain every day.
 This terminology is consistent with the text, though bipolar disorder is the scientific name for the illness as it is recognized today. The choice here is to honor the author’s use of terminology as expressed in the text. For reference to a text that deliberately rejects the use of the word ‘bipolar,’ see Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. (Jamison, 2011, pp.181-182.)
Image Sources: 1. Title image: “Tea on the Countertop.” Flickr , Creative Commons Public Access CCO, 3 Apr. 2017.
2. “Em and the Big Hoom.” Goodreads, Aleph Book Company, 2012.
Jamison, Kay R. An Unquiet Mind. New York: Vintage Books, 2011.
Pinto, Jerry. Em And The Big Hoom. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2012.
Roberts, Glenn A. “Narrative and Severe Mental Illness: What Place Do Stories Have in an Evidence-Based World?” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, vol. 6, no. 6, Nov. 2000, pp. 432–441. Cambridge University Press.