Em and the Big Hoom

Last couple of months have been a lesson in strength. Of people around me. I speak through this particular book I read six odd months back, because for starters, this book is beautifully written. And sometimes loaned phrases voice your thoughts better than you can.

The book walks through the life of a dysfunctional family, as seen by the son. Em struggles with mental illness, and the entire story revolves around how the two kids and the father (Big Hoom) wrap their lives around it, in a small apartment in Bombay.

The story starts with a letter from Em. Where she writes to Big Hoom –

‘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.’

And right there, you start falling in love with this book. The book does not talk about loving your family. But somewhere through the course of the book, it tells you what you always knew. That families are imperfect. There will always be days where it is hard to like them. After all, parents are just adults who have had a little more experience with life, and every day is a guessing exercise between right and wrong. That can’t be easy. But scratch a little under the surface, and there is this irrational amount of love. And this unconditional love is the only thing that lasts. Not the arguments. Not the tears. And not the differences.

The story courses between the past and the present. Quirky courtship days of the parents. Em’s multiple suicide attempts. Hospital rooms where the son reads Em’s letters to her. To live a little with her in the past and bring her back to the present. The human ability to adjust to a new low and treat it as the new normal. And their strength in smiling through this new normal.

The son writes about Em’s illness –

‘Imagine you are walking in a pleasant meadow with someone you love, your mother. It’s warm, and there’s just enough of a breeze to cool you. You can smell earth and cut grass, and something of a herb garden. Lunch is a happy memory in your stomach and dinner awaits you – a three course meal you have devised – all your comfort foods. The light is golden with a touch of blue, as if the sky were leaking. 
Suddenly, your mother steps into a patch of quicksand. The world continues to be idyllic and inviting for you but your mother is being sucked into the centre of the earth. She makes it worse by smiling bravely, by telling you to go on, to leave her there, the man with the broken leg on the Arctic expedition who says, ‘Come back for me; it’s my best chance’, because the lie allows everyone to believe that they are not abandoning him to die.’

We probably will never know how to deal with losses in the family. There is no handbook with instructions for this. Facing your parents’ mortality cannot be taught. Facing your child’s mortality is unfathomable. Someone very dear lost her father few months back. I was distraught and then Baba in one of his many conversations said, ‘My health keeps getting better. I am going to the gym four days a week.‘ And in this one factual sentence, I knew he had read my mind. This man who has been at the receiving end of umpteen fights with me, for reasons small and big, knew exactly what to say to make me a feel a little better. And in that moment, I knew that there are no lessons for tomorrow. Today is all you have. For tomorrow, you have faith and prayers.

Em passes away. And the family sits together in the same small Bombay apartment, after the funeral rituals are over and everyone has left. And the son writes –

‘And now the world expanded as people left the flat. As we opened the door together, I discovered that departures make the world smaller, slighter, less significant.The city continued on it way. Boys tried to sell me drumsticks, girls played hopscotch, the Bihari badli worker carried his gathri of ironed clothes to the homes from which they had come, and the buses honked at suicidal cyclists. At one level this was vaguely confusing. Surely, something should acknowledge how much things have changed? At another level, it was oddly comforting.’

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