Sneha Roy Chowdhury
“It occurred to me then that the mad in India are not the mentally ill, they are, simply, mad. They have no other identity. Here, everyone was mad. They had lost their hair so that the institution could keep them free of lice. They had lost their clothes because their families had abandoned them, and they had lost their lives because they had lost their families. They were now free, in a bizarre sort of way. They were also alone except for the shoulder in front and the touch of the fingers of the person following behind.”
-Jerry Pinto, Em and the Big Hoom.
The discourse on treatment as well as dealing with mental disease extensive. It is equally difficult to determine what qualifies as mental disorders, and the word “mad”. Insanity as a concept is not particularly rigid and has in fact changed and moulded itself in various ways over the years, to fit or exclude descriptions. Various authors, writers, poets have explored the concept, giving rise to works such as Toba Tek Singh by Sadat Hasan Manto. But Pinto’s novel, Em and the Big Hoom, happens to be quite the revelation which takes one through an entire spectrum of emotions. Love, resentment, pain, understanding and most conspicuously survival, play very central roles in the lives of these fragile characters that are holding it together with tape and glue, falling apart and fixing each other each day.
The book is a first person narration by a boy growing up with a mother who has been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and the perils he, his sister and his very exemplary father face while they live and care for this woman. In subtle, but very strong ways, it addresses issues of how mental illnesses are looked upon in our country, the dilapidated and decaying conditions under which such patients are kept and what the troubles that plague the mental health sphere in our nation. Truth rings loud as you flip every page over and much is to be said about the very accurate depiction. While there is an essence of strife, of a troubled childhood and of very forgiving coping that is noticed in the stories of this book, there is also an underlying sense of hopeless surrender that evolves in the course of the account.
Ward 33 (the psychiatric care center of the nearest hospital) features very prominently in the book- several mentions, visits and quite a description too. There are notes on shock therapies, its effects, on psychiatrists and on various medications. There is also a glint of a something the reader can almost catch but never entirely feel- the idea of what it is like to be the victim of this unrelenting torture of a disorder. And the idea of how to deal with and live with someone who is under so much duress, slipping in and out of two unpleasant phases and watching a mind and a soul wither away. While “Em” or “Imelda” writhes and curses and smokes her way through her maniac phases and her depressions, her patient, supportive and loving husband carries her through it. Her children get more than just an earful of her, and they watch over her, they rally around. These three lives pivot around this one woman, who is unwell yet amusing, irritable, hurtful and cheerful – all in one day.
There is a certain revelation in watching the narrator and his sister Susan go through the motions of their days, and try and restore some semblance of stability in the household while their father fights for an existence and their mother battles a disease. A disease that was oblivious to the time and age of the day. A disease that was could not be explained, one that doctors found difficult to diagnose and one her family perhaps wasn’t equipped to handle.
It is striking how mental health is trivialized in our society. Where needing help is not a concept and where suppressing the psychological issues of the individual is considered natural. It becomes important then, to realize that mental health is as important, if not more, as physical health and it becomes that much more important to ensure its wellbeing. It is not a shame to be suffering from any mental discomfort. It is not what the layman generally calls “going mad”.
It is time to take charge of our mental health, help spread awareness on the matter, talk about it, and seek help if need be. The human mind, complicated as it may be, needs release and the healthiest way to solve a problem is to first acknowledge it. To recognize that you can express yourself without having to feel embarrassed and ashamed about it.