Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

Hardcover, 224 pages
Publisher: Viking (May 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Mary Mount

“A blast of a novel set in a Catholic household in Mumbai. Maniacally, brilliantly funny and heartbreaking at the same time.” —Mary Mount

Jerry Pinto is a writer, teacher and journalist living in Mumbai. He also works with an NGO campaigning for children’s rights. This, his ninth book, is a semi-autobiographical novel about the author, his sister, his mother (“Em”) and his father (“the Big Hoom”). A comic novel about mental illness, it documents Em’s mood swings and erratic behaviour as a result of her manic depression. Pinto’s masterful command of dialogue creates an affecting window into his family life as a child in Mumbai.



“Someone turned on a tap”

Dear Angel Ears, 

Outside the window, a Marathi manus1 is asking mournfully if anyone would like to buy salt. 

Or at least that’s what I think. Mee-ee-et, he wails, Me-eeetwallah, mee-eet. Other sounds: Mae mumbling about morning Mass; an impertinent sparrow demanding the last bit of my toast. 

I miss you terribly. But if you are going to send me a postcard, I shall abstain. I think postcards are for acquaintances and now that we are friends, you should find some nice stationery and write me a proper letter. These scribbles will not do; they are meant for the common masses. 

A butterfly is banging on the windowpane in the corridor and I must now rise to let it out. If your next letter is not to hand with heartwarming promptness, I shall declare you unfit for human consumption and throw you to the lions. 


PS: The sparrow wins. Imelda: nil. Sparrow: one. 

In her letters to him, she called him Angel Ears.

“Why Angel Ears?” I asked her, in Ward 33 (Psychiatric), Sir J. J. Hospital.

She turned her cool green eyes on me and smiled. For a while, her fingers stopped playing with the worn-out sheet that was covering her.

“Haven’t you noticed? His ears are the sweetest thing about him. They look like bits of bacon curled up from too much frying.”

I had never thought of my father’s ears. But later that evening, as he stood in the kitchen and cooked for me and my sister, scraping at a fry-up of potatoes, I saw that his ears were indeed unusual. When was the first time that she noticed his ears? Was it part of her falling in love with him, or did it happen in the hypersensitive moments that follow? And when she called him by that name the first time, did he respond immediately? He probably did, without asking why. They could be like that together.

It intrigues me, love. Especially theirs, which seems to have been full of codes and rituals, almost all of them devised by her. She also called him Mambo, and Augie March, but almost never by his given name, Augustine.

He called her Imelda, which was her name, and, sometimes, Beloved.

She had another name for him: Limb of Satan. LOS. I asked her about that late one night, when the two of us were smoking together on the balcony of our small flat in a city of small flats. Behind us the one-bedroom-hall-kitchen, all 450 square feet of it, was quiet. In front of us, the side of a tenement rose like a cliff face.


[1] A Marathi manus is a members of an Indo-Aryan ethnic group who speak Marathi and were members of the Maratha empire (which is a matter of historical pride for many of them).

  • Em and the Big Hoom