The world behind 'Em and the Big Hoom'

Jerry Pinto / Photo credit: Godrej Culture Lab  

Jerry Pinto has been a mathematics tutor, school librarian, journalist, columnist and is now associated with Meljol, an NGO that works in the sphere of child rights. Based in Mumbai, his noted works include, Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, which won the Best Book on Cinema Awards at the 54th National Film Awards, Surviving Women and Asylum and Other Poems.  Em and The Big Hoom, which won him the Windham Campbell prize was his first book. He talks to  Swetha Amit about this book and the general outlook towards mental illness in society.

First, congratulations on your Sahitya Akademi award and the Windham Campbell prize award for Em and the Big Hoom, which incidentally is your first novel and sort of a semi-autobiographical work.  What really inspired it?
I think when you have read enough books, you end up wanting to write your own. You are always told that you should write what you know best. For me, it appeared like it was my life, which I knew best and thought it was the easiest thing to write about. I was 16 when I started writing this one and initially wrote several bad drafts. It was with the impulse of wanting to communicate, which inspired  me to start writing. 

This particular draft started when I was at the Jaipur Lit Fest.  I had met this powerful person there called David who said he was willing to represent me if I write this book. I immediately thought that this was my moment. I was around 40 years and stopped working as I spent the next three - four  years doing nothing but writing Em and the Big Hoom.

Did you ever fear of being judged considering the fact that Em and the Big Hoom is a semi-autobiographical book dealing with a subject like depression?
Well I think if you have studied in an all-boys school, which exists in a small area and which isn't far from your residence, then you have been through the worst possible judging by others where you have been called names, mocked and laughed at. After a point, it doesn't matter as you eventually know that your definition is way ahead of what others think about you. 

However, at another level, there was always this defence that this was a novel categorised as fiction. I was clear that I was writing fiction about another family, which bears an uncanny resemblance to mine. I do have a sister, a mother who was bipolar and a rock solid father  - quite similar to the characters in the book.  It's the same story except that it's narrated as a novel. Did it happen like this? Well I believe that nothing ever happens exactly the way it's been told in the book. Not even in a work of non-fiction. We tend to edit reality.

As an author, you do tend to worry about the acceptance of every single book that you write, whether its translation, work of fiction or children's books. You are worried as to how it will be received by readers. What surprises me is how the same book is received differently by different people and I realize that it becomes a book only when you hear of readers' feedback. Until then it's just a collection of words.

You had mentioned in your book that you had this inherent fear of growing up to be 'mad'. You felt that it could be passed on through the genes. Considering all of us are mad in some way or the other, what does the term 'madness' mean to you?|
Madness according to me, which I fear is the madness that I will no longer be able to do what I want to do with my life on my terms. For instance, if I am depressed all the time and cannot enjoy my work, cannot serve a little, help or laugh a little then that's what I would term as abnormal.

When you stop enjoying these little things in life that's when I would say then you are abstaining from normalcy.  And that frightens me. I have seen people who no longer find pleasure in the simple things in life such as a child's laugh or sunset. That would terrify me, as I did not want to become like that. However, today I have a slightly better understanding that this may not happen to me as after all these year's I am still holding up.

Coming back to your book, there is one instance where the unnamed narrator (the boy) says that ''Depression seems like it was engrossing and it was another reality, which she had no escape from''. Do you feel that certain individuals prefer to dwell in misery as it tends to neutralise the existing pain that they already face?
Well I think there are various levels of pain that we all experience. One kind of pain is good for us ie where pain is fundamentally our friend and helps us survive better. It teaches you what not to do. For example, a child would not have learnt that putting your hand in fire will cause burns, if it did not experience that stinging pain, the first time it got burnt.

The second level of pain is that of illness be it physical or mental. For instance if a person is diagnosed with cancer, there may no physical pain at that point. However, the mental anguish and terror after hearing that word can cloud that person's world altogether. And, finally, the last kind of pain is depression.  There is this philosophical existential kind of depression that we all go through.

However, I don't think one can ever escape into depression. This is one of the common myths about mental illness that people mull into depression because they want to lie around and escape from work and reality. Nobody enjoys being under depression. If you look at someone suffering from depression, you will see that person will be more than willing to trade places with you and give up the pain for a 'normal' healthy life. Unfortunately this country is not very sympathetic towards mental illness.

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You must have undergone a lot of pain seeing your own mother suffering in that manner - not easy circumstances especially during those growing up years. So how did you deal with this pain? What was your source of strength at that point?

Now, if there is an event that happens for say, three days or a week such as someone annoying comes and stays with you, it is easy to determine how you dealt with that as it's just for a short span of time. However in my case, ever since I was born, my mother has been suffering from depression, and for me, I have always lived with it. In a way, this was my reality.

At that time what really helped was human comfort and warmth extended to me. For instance, someone would offer to come and stay with mom while I would get those couple of hours break to go and explore the larger world outside. Or someone would come and offer to cook a good meal. All these things were stress busters for me

Also, children are usually good at accepting the world that they live in. For instance, if you look at children living in a street, they will be as joyful as those living in the lap of luxury. Its only when you begin to see other realities, you start worrying as that's when the comparison starts.

The condition 'depression' seems to be quite common these days albeit in varying degrees among several age groups. What would you attribute the cause of this particular condition to?
I think the problem lies in the fact that we as a society are very reluctant to admit that there is some kind of a problem in the family. We all seem to want to portray a picture-perfect family. To be able to share aspects like a son / daughter went through a rough patch and taking him / her to a therapist really helped, would be a huge step going forward.

In fact, I have come across several people who are quite ignorant about the symptoms of certain mental illness. For instance, there was this woman who came and told me that her brother was hearing voices and since they didn't know what this meant, they locked him for five years.  It's only after someone whom they knew came and shared a similar experience and their solution, was he then taken to a psychiatrist.  Now he is fine, married and settled but unfortunately he lost five years of his life.  It's easy to blame the family here, but I would blame society overall as we are still not open enough to talk about unhappiness. As per societal norms, we always need to portray a happy life.

You also mentioned how society is insensitive towards mental illness in general. Do you see progression in the mind-sets undergoing a change in the near future, with regards to people / children suffering from mental illness?
I see that mentally retarded children have a very special place in society. The Muslims used to say that these children are touched by the hand of God while Hindus would say these are angels of gift. These 'special' children will never grow old or become vicious or evil.

As for progression, there will definitely be one in the near future. As I have said we need more people to come and talk about such things. Actress Deepika Padukone coming and talking about her depression was a huge step forward. She talked about it in an honest manner without blowing it up. We need more such people to come out and share their experiences. After Em and the Big Hoom, it's amazing how many people have written to me and shared their experiences.

Would you say, writing this book was a catharisis?
The term 'catharsis' refers to what one feels as a viewer, reader or as someone who experiences the release of emotions. For a writer there is no catharsis, only struggle.  Let me explain this. Supposing you are on a long hike with a very heavy backpack. There is a moment where you pause and shift your backpack from one part to another part of your body. For a moment, you feel a sense of relief on one part of that body from where you have shifted your backpack. That's what it is for writers. As our understanding grows and maturity occurs, the pain also shifts. It comes to rest at a place which is more bearable.

Penning down a book for every author is a learning experience by itself. What did you personally learn while penning Em and the Big Hoom down?
I learnt that I am a really bad writer. But I also learnt that I was a good editor. For this book, I wrote about 65,000 words. But before that I had to write 7 lakh words before I could choose these 65,000 words which would work. What worked in my favour was that because I wrote those initial 7 lakh words, I had these 65,000 words already in existence and I knew ultimately to choose the good words and eliminate the bad ones.

Are there any books on mental illness that have caught your fancy or that left an impact on you as a reader?
I loved this book The curious incident of the dog in the night time by Mark Haddon. I also enjoyed Darkness Visible by William Styron. One book that really shook me was Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha.  It's a book in Hindi by an Indian playwright called Swadesh Deepak. In fact, he himself suffered from bipolar disorder and tried to kill himself thrice. He was put in a mental hospital and given shock treatments. This book is a powerful narration of what it was like to be 'mad' and it received rave reviews.  One day, Swadesh Deepak went out for a walk and never returned. He simply vanished and till today we don't know whether he is alive or dead. However, he has left behind this masterpiece, which I am in the process of translating at the moment.

Speaking of translations, you have translated three books. How do you ensure you maintain authenticity of the book during the translation process?
Central to any act of translation is a terrible certainty that you are never going to get it right.  Like for instance, take this word-'re'. Now this word conveys a sort of affectionate stance. However, in the English language, there is nothing close to this word. The closest word that comes is by saying 'Hey love' or 'Hey man' but it's not the same.

So, how does one find accurate words to represent the same? So finding the appropriate word is definitely a challenge. Whenever you are working on a translation, you are lamenting how much you are losing. However, what you take to the other side is still enough.  Now without translations we wouldn't get access to great works like Tintin, Asterix N Obelix, or the works of Haruki Murakami. So, it's always good to throw doors open to get a wider picture of what the world is like.

Lastly, what are your plans? Any more books in the pipeline?
My next novel is called Murder in Mind, which is a murder mystery and will hopefully come out by end of the year.

(See book excerpt: Excerpt from Em and the Big Hoom)