Gods and Ends author Lindsay Pereira: 'Bombay has the ability to horrify or surprise at every turn'
In Gods and Ends, Pereira paints an honest — if despondent — look at the lives of Goan Catholics living in a chawl. Obrigado Mansion is in Orlem in Malad but, it could be any chawl in Mumbai, where residents are boxed in by paper-thin walls, their lives on display for everyone around.
Life in Mumbai is a struggle. It’s a daily battle to find your own pocket of happiness amid the chaos that constantly surrounds you. This struggle has found expression in many a book written about the city.
The latest is editor and journalist Lindsay Pereira’s Gods and Ends. Pereira was co-editor with the late Eunice de Souza of Women’s Voices: Selections form Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Indian Writing in English.
In Gods and Ends, Pereira paints an honest — if despondent — look at the lives of Goan Catholics living in a chawl. Obrigado Mansion is in Orlem in Malad but, it could be any chawl in the city, where residents are boxed in by paper-thin walls, their lives on display for everyone around. As Pereira writes in one of the book’s evocative passages: ‘Obrigado walls were paper-thin, playing a game of whispers with each family as they struggled to rein in their secrets. Everyone knew everything about everyone else. Over time, they grew accustomed to this lack of privacy, mistaking it for a sense of freedom that enabled some of them to stumble home drunk, others to urinate on staircases, and still others to masturbate on rainy afternoons. Their windows had curtains, but only to keep up the pretence that their lives were their own, their secrets theirs to share or withhold.’
Obrigado’s secrets are now ours to consume. Each character gets space in the book to tell their story. There’s the drunkard whose wife and child left him, the Born Again converts eager to spread the word of Jesus, the foreign-returned Kuwait-kar wearing money and too much pride, the bullied child battling her own demons and more. These are familiar stories: suspicion of their neighbours, derision for those earning more money, apathy towards suffering and assault (sexual and physical), and the belief that religion can make everything better. Women, expectedly, get a raw deal and their plight is something that people will find familiar, irrespective of religion or city.
Pereira’s writing is stark in its simplicity. He uses dialogue and narration with good effect, giving each character enough space to tell their story.
Pereira’s familiarity with the landscape — he was born in Orlem and spent three decades there — is on full display, from the explorations about what people secretly think about religion to the subtle nuances of the language spoken. Words like ‘legdat’ (like that), bleddy (a tamer bloody) and the delightfully wrong aks (ask) pepper the dialogues. There’s even a mention of that high and mighty mysterious character who featured in our many childhood admonishments, Lord Faulkland.
Gods and Ends, at its essence, is a book that showcases a little-known but integral aspect of the city.
We spoke with Pereira to find out more.
How did you get the idea of writing such a book?
I began by trying to put across a perspective that I felt was missing in literature about Bombay. There were novels about various communities, including the Roman Catholics, but I couldn’t find one that adequately represented a side of the city I felt closest to. I didn’t start out trying to write a novel, but the ideas I wanted to explore— about misogyny, repression, or religion— were easier to manage in this format, which is how it grew organically into its final form.
How long have you been working on and crafting these characters? Where did you find inspiration for them?
They have been with me for years, in some form. Some characters were rejected because I didn’t find them compelling enough; others added little more than colour and got in the way of what I hoped would be a lean narrative. In some way, they have been with me for much of my life, just not in the form they eventually took.
I grew up surrounded by people who exhibited certain ideas, and values, that I borrowed bits and pieces from. Their behaviour was fictional, but the building blocks were rooted in the real world.
You’ve been brutally honest about the lives of Goan Catholics. Is this a counter, of sorts, to the stories of fun-loving Goans that are more common in the media?
I don’t think of it as reflective of the Goan Catholic community alone, simply because Orlem is also home to a significant number of Mangalorean and East Indian Catholics. The brutal honesty was why I felt a need to write this in the first place, because I didn’t want a story that reduced every character to a cliché. There is joy and sadness in all lives, to varying degrees, but I was focusing on a marginalised section of people in a community already deemed a minority.
I didn’t set out to counter a popularly held view but was consciously trying to shift the narrative away from that common perspective towards what I believed were issues that needed to be addressed.
Also, criticism often comes from a position of love, and I have a deep fondness for the place and people who live there, despite the contrary feelings the book may evoke.
The overarching theme seems to be one of despair. The little pockets of happiness are few and far between.
It would have been naïve of me to not acknowledge that happiness and economic prosperity weren’t inextricably linked. These were clearly people with limited means at their disposal, and no way out of circumstances they had found themselves in. To introduce joy merely to try and inject a sense of balance felt false. I wanted to reflect their raw despair and resignation.
Tell me about the book’s structure: why the decision to focus on a character at a time, and break timelines?
It was important for me to try and accommodate as many points of view as possible, because each could then stand for a comment on something larger than themselves. The characters live together but, despite their shared poverty, struggle with different socio-economic realities. I wanted shifting timelines because moving away from a linear narrative could create an overall mood instead. It is always risky to avoid a more solid structure, but I couldn’t bring disparate ideas together without this fluidity. The chapter titled ‘Market’ [which carries snippets of overheard conversations featuring the ladies of Orlem] is very indicative of the approach I had in mind from the start.
The book is an indication of what living in a city like Mumbai, in a small space without privacy, can do to your spirit and to families.
That was the intention. I believe all tightknit communities tend to struggle with petty resentments and anger that simmers below the surface, only revealing itself when one immerses oneself in these communities and is accepted into their fold. They aren’t always obvious from the outside.
There have been many books about Mumbai, which attempt to capture the ethos and the grittier part of life in the big city. Yours is the latest. What is your fascination with the city?
One of the things about Bombay that has always attracted me is its ability to horrify or surprise at every turn. It is a city of multiplicities, which is reflected in the literature it continues to inspire. It encourages people to come in, and absorbs them, unlike cities that do their best to separate locals from tourists. I wanted to celebrate that plurality and add another strand to voices that have come before me. There is always a hope that, when taken together, these books approximate a more cohesive picture of a city that is impossible to pin down.
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