Lindsay Pereira’s debut novel Gods and Ends is a little strange, in terms of things like form and structure and characters, but it’s the kind of strangeness that both the author and the reader delight in. Set in a community of staunch Goans in a bustling Bombay neighborhood, and focused in particular on the odd, petty, discontented residents of one specific building – Obrigado Mansion.

The name conjures up a Gothic romance – something with vampires and curses and maybe Italians? – but it is in fact a massively run-down building, an old bungalow converted into a cluster of tenements that is seemingly reviled by everyone who lives there. You get the sense that you don’t really go to Obrigado Mansion so much as you end up in it.

The format of this novel is such that the reader’s eye flits between characters, providing a passing glimpse of each of their lives, as if we’re passing them on the street or peering through a chink in their curtains. Some characters we meet only once, and only for the space of a few pages; others, such as Francisco the grumpy landlord or Philo Sequeira, the local misfit, we return to over and over again.

The latter and her family are the closest thing the book has to a centre. Lindsay Pereira does an effective job of depicting Philo’s angst, which ranges from the universal – dissatisfaction with her looks, unrequited love for one of the most popular boys in her school – to the grim – sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Gods and Ends is frank and unapologetic in its choice and portrayal of themes, and its characters are all without self-pity and, often, even remorse.

This straightforwardness and seeming lack of sentimentality doesn’t translate to woodenness, though. The stories of these characters never fail to strike home – there are some, like that of Peter Vaz, which nearly brought me to tears. (For reference, I haven’t cried since they shot King Kong off the Empire State Building.)

Eye (and ear) for detail

This format, with its veritable revolving door of characters and storylines, runs the risk of coming off as cluttered and, in some cases, superficial or rushed – especially with the blink-and-miss them ones, who are ushered off-stage again only pages after their entry. Some readers might indeed come away with that impression. I think the reason it worked for me is that in each case and with each character, regardless of how long they’ll be around, Pereira is careful to create a unique story, and also to write it with a great deal of compassion.

This, combined with an unflinching eye for the wretched, is the novel’s greatest strength. Several of these characters do terrible things, to themselves and to one another. Yet it is impossible not to root for them. One’s disappointment at having to say goodbye to one storyline, whether temporarily or not, is quickly soothed by how absorbing the next is.

Plotlines frequently intersect and overlap – again, Pereira makes full use of his setting, that of the dilapidated apartment building, with its too-thin walls and many windows, where all the residents are crammed too close for comfort; in Pereira’s own words, “the walls of the mansion were paper-thin, playing Chinese whispers as each family struggled to reign in their own secrets.” Eavesdropping is the default. This is good, because the dialogues are delicious.

Pereira has an ear for dialogue, and it’s a strength he plays to, even flaunts, in this novel. There are entire chapters comprising only dialogue – usually a long, often irate monologue from one of the cast, disparaging the men or women of Orlem, the vendors and their prices, the children, the landlords. It’s like a reverse real-estate ad. It’s true that the author’s penchant for phonetically writing out the dialect of English the characters use can take a little getting used to, but this is the kind of accommodation you happily make, for flavour purposes.

Love / hate

What I also enjoyed was Pereira’s oblique, unthinking approach to politics. All art is political, especially art about conservative Goan Catholics living in a Hindu-majority state, some of whose number occasionally fall in scandalous love with members of said Hindu majority. In the past, I’ve been rather acerbic about heavy-handed takes on politics – valid arguments made clumsily fail to bring the heart any pleasure – but even Pereira’s blatantly bigoted characters come off as natural.

The elders of the building, whom I will henceforth refer to as the Obrigado Aunties – sadly, not a rap group or a motorcycle gang but your garden-variety badmouths and busybodies – do not mince their words when it comes to disdain for anyone. Not even for a neighbour’s fat daughter or Mangalorean Catholics (with their different Konkani and their sub-par sorpotel), let alone Hindus.

Mary D’Costa in particular is a delightfully communal character – I should clarify for the kids at home that communalism is not delightful, but fictional portrayals of it can be – whose wariness of Hindus stems from the perception that their gods are weird and their festivals are obnoxious. You read lines like “They don’t eat this and that, their gods are funny and they will go to hell. You want to go to hell too? Then be friends with them”, and can’t help but chuckle a little bit, not only because the delivery is funny in itself, (not to mention it’s a valid point), but also because it really is a mirror image of those IT Cell Whatsapp forwards or your angriest uncle’s latest blog post.

Mary D’Costa and the Obrigado Aunties wouldn’t stand for all this no-onions-no-garlic-beef-is-a-sin nonsense. Unfortunately Mary D’Costa also doesn’t stand for interreligious marriage, which creates a sticky situation for her otherwise spotless daughter.

Like most novels, Gods and Ends is fundamentally about people. Some novels are about people in a feel-good, wholesome way – the inherent goodness of humanity and all that; Gods and Ends is more reminiscent of that saying about crabs in a bucket, all pulling one another down. But it does this so well, and leaves you feeling not bitter and cynical about humanity (the way much of the cast seems to be), but affectionate, if a little sad. It’s poignant and bittersweet. It’s funny in places. There’s a haunted apartment that isn’t Room 13. There’s not much else you could want, really.

Gods and Ends

Gods and Ends, Lindsay Pereira, Penguin Books India.