Hopeless in hovels: Janhavi Acharekar reviews Lindsay Pereira’s ‘Gods and Ends’

With an insider’s familiarity, Lindsay Pereira presents brutally honest vignettes of Mumbai’s Roman Catholic community

Updated - May 09, 2021 07:59 am IST

Published - May 08, 2021 04:00 pm IST

Reminiscent of Sartre’s existential play No Exit , the characters in Lindsay Pereira’s debut novel, Gods and Ends, are trapped in a shared living space they cannot leave — a chawl named Obrigado Mansion.

Set in the Catholic neighbourhood of Orlem in suburban Bombay of the 70s, the book is a scathing commentary on the local Roman Catholic community, its idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies, and religion. Disillusionment runs deep among the working-class alcoholic men, embittered women, and desperate young girls dreaming of escape from the confines of their oppressive matchbox-sized homes in Obrigado Mansion. The irony of the chawl’s name is not lost on the reader: obrigado means gratitude in Portuguese and the dilapidated ‘mansion’ seems to reflect the decay in the community.

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Seeking release

Pereira’s colourful cast of characters includes factory workers, government employees, born-again Christians, a store manager, a local goon, among other people, and their families. One of the impermanent tenants residing in Room 106 — “a place where even dreams went to die” — is Jesus Christ. The lives of these characters are intertwined and their stories interlinked, the collision of their circumstances evoking Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people”.

Pereira draws the reader into the rooms and lives of Brigette and Jude Sequeira and their daughter Philomena — who, trapped in

her home and body, seeks release in dreams of a local boy; Peter Vaz, who, dumped by his family, finds respite in drink and porn; Michelle D’Costa, liberated by hostel life and love outside the community; the widow Bella Quadros, whose lonely, mundane existence is more tolerable than the marital life of her neighbours; the landlord Francisco Fernandez and his widowed daughter-in-law, Dulcine, who have little to look forward to in life except the monthly collection of rent.

Anything but a party

“Dat’s why dey have that joke, men, one Goan is Remo Fernandes, two Goans becomes feni factory, three Goans means you got football club and four Goans is all night beach party,” says Jude Sequeira of Room 108. But for the Goan, Mangalorean and East-Indian residents of Obrigado Mansion, life is anything but a party.

Even Christmas celebrations are funereal here. Bound by the ennui of the wait for a better life that consistently eludes them, and the ensuing hopelessness, men confront their failures while women mourn a life that has passed them by. Religion fills this void and, like Gilbert D’Souza’s illicit affair, provides relief from boredom, if nothing else. Pointedly, one of the flag-bearers of religion, the parish priest Father Lawrence, is besieged with doubts about his calling and filled with desire for his young parishioner.

Slow death

Banter, bargaining and gossip at the local market provide temporary relief to the women of Orlem. Trapped in loveless, abusive relationships, they wish their men dead. Widows are liberated by their circumstances; their personal and sexual freedom is envied by those bound by domesticity. In these cramped living quarters buzzing with envy, vengefulness and violence, only death can offer respite. Pereira rips apart the popular image of the Roman Catholic community as one of bon vivants and liberated women, and exposes its superficiality.

Death is all-pervasive in Gods and Ends , opening as it does with the mysterious events surrounding Jude Sequeira’s death. Meanwhile, for Michelle, to stay on in Orlem is “to choose a slow death”; she decides to “choose life” by leaving the place and the community.

Yet, this searing critique is not without empathy or wit. Readers acquainted with the lingo of Mumbai’s Catholic neighbourhoods, will enjoy the language and the idiom: “Why the British left, men, my mumma used to say everytime. I don know wot she wanted from dem, but everytime she used to tell us” or “He [Jesus] was not drinking or wot? Where you saw the priests drinking holy sofdrink at mass, men?”

But the humour does not linger. Pereira’s well-crafted characters are born of a familiarity with the milieu he writes about, and his honesty is brutal. He does not mince words: “When you sit in the toilet long enough, you stop noticing the smell.”

To immerse oneself in this engaging, pulsating book is to be trapped in the world of its defeated characters. Be prepared for a fulfilling, disturbing read.

Gods and Ends; Lindsay Pereira, Vintage Books, ₹599

The Mumbai-based writer is the author of several books including the novel , Wanderers, All.

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