Mental Health Day: Jerry Pinto’s novel ‘M and the Big Hoom’ presents mental anguish


Today we are celebrating World Mental Health Day. There is very little discussion on this subject in India. But after the devastation and lockdown during the Corona period, this topic has come into the limelight rapidly. Depression that has spread over a long period of time due to the imprisonment of homes, loss of employment or separation of loved ones can be clearly seen not only on a particular person but also on the whole society.

The stress created by the changing lifestyle and background of nuclear family has started drawing people’s attention towards mental health. But this subject is still untouched in the world of Hindi literature. Although some people have written and started writing, but this writing did not come as much discussion as the literature of English or other languages.

Whenever depression or mental disorder is discussed in the literary world, there is a mention of the book ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ by the English writer Jerry Pinto. Jerry Pinto, living in Mumbai, is a distinguished English journalist, poet and writer. His book Em and the Big Hoom has been in discussion not only in India but also outside India. In 2012, this novel was awarded The Hindu Literary Prize. Awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for the English language in 2016.

Now this novel is coming out in Hindi under the name ‘M and the Big Hoom’. This novel is being published by Vani Prakashan Group. Translated by Prabhat Milind.

In this novel the author affectionately calls his mother “M” and the author’s father often responds with the sound of “hum” when asked about something. The novel is based on the life of the author with his mother “M”. “M” is suffering from mental illness. Sometimes she is in mania and sometimes in deep depression. M tries suicide several times.

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The author has narrated the story of his family in a very touching way. The author fears whether he too will suffer from some mental illness like his mother. The author lives a life battling between love and depression.

Here some excerpts of this book are being presented, so you also read – ‘M and the Big Hoom

Dr. Michael came into our lives only when ‘M’ Staville returned from the clinic. She never went to the Staville Clinic again. We were more dependent on him than we have ever been on any other psychiatrist. He used to pay special attention to M, or perhaps he used to do so with all his patients.

‘I am present on one of your phone calls,’ he said, and he stood by his point. Earlier, the dosage of M’s medicines remained the same for several weeks, now they were changed daily according to his needs.

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I don’t know if it really made any difference? But our entire family was convinced that he was leaving no stone unturned in treating M. But mental medicines were given according to the symptoms. With the aim of calming the psychosis and increasing the level of endorphins. But within, things go on without any change.

There is something inside that pierces the brain chemicals and prevents them from reaching it. I was always aware about this thing, although I also had no answer to this question. I didn’t even have a satisfactory answer to the question- ‘How is mommy?’ So I would try my best to answer it with a secret smile. This invention of mine worked to some extent because through this smile I was able to bring the questioner within the shadow of the deep pain that I had systematically created around me.

She was perfectly fine looking from outside. We didn’t care about him physically. ‘I am as strong as a pony and twice as stubborn as that.’ When someone asked him about his condition, he had the same answer. His favorite food used to be bhajiyas and some soft drinks, the flavors of which he liked very much. But if he liked the taste of anything more than these two, then that thing was beedi.

However, on two occasions, we were really scared about his health. The first time when something like a cauliflower had grown in her mouth and the second time when a lump had formed in her uterus some three years after that.

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After completing fifty years of his life, M suddenly started looking very fat. We all thought that this obesity has to do with its metabolism. She used to eat a lot of sugar too. Some six teaspoons in a cup of tea. It was a simple thing for him to throw a handful of sugar in the talks. Every now and then she was seen opening the sugar box. She could eat Brijwasi’s jalebis and chocolates in any quantity. His tendency to eat sweets had a strange increase when he had attacks of depression. Sometimes we used to hide the box of sugar to avoid over consumption. But usually we used to joke about this habit of his. What’s more, M knew this too and didn’t mind it.

One day suddenly the nurse went to meet Sarah-May. She was our distant relative, so we had to go through the formality of meeting her occasionally. Sarah-May had lost everything in her life because her young boyfriend fled to Canada with all her money. M used to visit her twice a year at the Old Age Home in Bandra so that she would not feel alone in this world.
……

That night I was staying at a friend’s house when suddenly Hum sahib’s phone rang. I went to see a movie with my friend. After leaving the cinema hall, we had a good meal. M was going through her seizures but both Humm Saheb and Sujan were there to look after her. That’s why I was allowed to spend the night outside the house.

I didn’t sleep at all that night; I couldn’t even sleep at someone else’s house. It was a new experience for me and I wanted to enjoy every moment of it. I had once shared this wish with Sujan as well and in return she also encouraged me.

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‘Somewhere else I fall asleep immediately because I am completely free of M’s worries.’

When I went to that foreign house at night, suddenly the phone rang, I do not know why I felt that the phone had come for me only.
‘She is no more,’ was Humm’s voice, which was almost impassioned – like a dry peel that once contained fresh grains of grain.
‘Is he…?’
But I did not dare to ask him if he had committed suicide.
‘No,’ Hum sahib had answered my question without listening to it.

I didn’t feel it worth bothering my host who had gone so many nights. I quietly left his house, and when I left the building I still felt gusts of cool and fresh air on my face. My taxi was speeding through the road, tearing through the silence of the suburbs of the city. There was no crowd on the way. Few people were sleeping like corpses on the sidewalks. I did not even think about it and Mahim came soon after. Was there any secret behind this? What did it mean? What was death like for M?

‘The last big secret,’ this word kept coming out of his mouth often.
‘But I have no fear of it either.’ She would say again, ‘I challenge death to come.’
And, finally such a situation has come.

The door of the flat was wide open and light was filtering out from inside. One could easily understand that someone had died inside. The whispers of people could be clearly heard from inside. I quietly entered the bedroom where M’s body was lying on the bed. Sujan was sitting right next to his body. Steady and silent. M was always talking or moving unnecessarily. It was really sad to see him lying lifeless like this.

After reading crime novels, I started to know a little bit about the changes in the body after death – such as how the muscles of the body start to twitch, how the body becomes loose and due to the destruction of cells, the internal hormones of the body. What is the change in leakage?

As soon as Hum sahib saw me, he hugged me for a moment. However, there were only a few such occasions in my life. But where did M die before that, nor had such a mountain of trouble ever broken in our life! The axis of our life had always remained in its place. Had death wobbled that axis from its place?

….

I was not at peace, but I remembered what M had said. She wanted him to be buried in a very simple way. She wanted to donate her body to be used after death. I went to Sujan to talk about it.

‘She wanted to donate her eyes.’
‘They came and went,’ he said.
Did they take his eyes? Must have taken it. That’s what she wanted after all. I suddenly felt the urge to see his eyes but I knew it was no longer possible. Now those eyes had become a part of our memories.
I was told by many people that my eyes were exactly like that of my mother.

Tears started falling from my eyes again but somehow I got over my hiccups. If you are not sobbing, you can cry even among people. Tears are transparent. If you are walking with fast steps and the sun is very hot then no one notices your tears. The sobs create a hindrance in this silence. They penetrate deeply into the consciousness of the people. That’s why people consider it their responsibility to ask this question, what has happened to you.

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I had been weeping all the way on the way to the place of the cremated person. The coffin seller’s store had only one finished coffin and three albums with different designs of coffins. Among them were some white coffins meant for nuns, priests and bachelors. This was told to me by the store employee. But most of the coffins were made of brown wood. All the albums were filled with coffins of varying prices and designs. The employee started telling us about them in detail.

’… you can also get the coffins made of genuine silk with lace cushions, or if you prefer, satin pillows with hand-etching on the sides. … coffins made of brass or silver can also be found … First you decide whether you want a normal coffin or made of teak. But do you guys have a permanent grave?’
‘I don’t know exactly but I think probably not.’
‘That’s not right. You should know this.
I called home. We didn’t really have a permanent grave.
‘No problem. Sometimes such problems also happen. Have you made a booking?’
I didn’t even know what to do for booking.
‘You should talk to the pastor about this first. If you say we can do this work too, but what have you thought?’

Once the cremator assumed that I was uninterested in the coffin with silken edges made of teak being slowly carried forward, his enthusiasm also cooled and he paid little attention to my words. Started giving He just told me what to do and left the rest to me.

At home, the women of the family had finished bathing M’s body. They also dressed him up and put shining pink shoes on his feet.

By now the pastor had also reached. Tea was given to him first, after that he took out the garland of his bead and started spinning it. He prayed for M’s soul to rest in peace. Then came close to me and asked me if I wanted to say anything. I didn’t understand what to say. I had definitely thought of some things in my mind but I did not believe that I would be able to say them.

If any stone is left unturned in the custom of burying M, the guilt of this fact will not leave me for the rest of my life. Maybe M’s death was just a practical social obligation for people but they did not know how important M was in our life. However, after burying M in the graveyard, we went back home.

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