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Why my novel upset my mother

Lindsay Pereira, whose Gods And Ends is shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2021, on growing up in the Catholic enclave of Orlem in Mumbai, and why he set his novel there

Orlem is a predominantly Catholic community
Orlem is a predominantly Catholic community

The novel I wrote upset my mother. It wasn’t the reaction I was looking for, of course, but I came around to looking at it from her perspective. Gods And Ends is set in Malad, a suburb of Bombay, specifically a small part of it called Orlem, inhabited predominantly by a Roman Catholic community. I came to realise why my mother saw this work of fiction as a betrayal of sorts, a public exhibition of private lives that somehow triggered emotions she must have tried to bury a long time ago.

I had reasons for choosing Orlem as the setting for my book. As a writer, one is always aware of one’s limitations, or lack thereof, when it comes to exercising the imagination. Characters can go where you want them to, behaving in ways of your choosing because you pull their strings. The world they inhabit is yours to create. I wilfully chose a place I knew best, where I took my first breath.

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I was born in Orlem. It’s where my mother grew up too. I attended the same school she once did. I know its short-cuts and cul-de-sacs, the best bakery for fresh bread, and where alcohol may be served at 3am. I didn’t speak of these things in my book but they seeped into its pages nonetheless, the way I expected them to. Writing about things we know is often a way of enhancing authenticity; it’s why so many exercises begin with that suggestion. For me, that place and community were paramount because they made me believe I had something to talk about. I didn’t choose Orlem for authenticity; I chose it because I wanted to capture what growing up there felt like, among people who almost never find themselves in a work of fiction. I wanted my book to be an act of representation.

It’s easy to drive past Orlem without knowing about the thousands of people who call it home. On Google Maps, it looks like an unruly, awkward decagon, rubbing up against Kandivali on one side and New Link Road on the other. Cutting through its heart is Marve Road, which begins a few feet from Malad station and stutters to a halt on a sandy beach by the Arabian Sea. Bombay is full of tight-knit communities just like it, occupied by people drawn together by a singular belief or way of life.

The cover of ‘Gods and Ends’, by Lindsay Pereira, published by Penguin Books India
The cover of ‘Gods and Ends’, by Lindsay Pereira, published by Penguin Books India

The books I read while growing up spoke of places I didn’t identify with. My school library offered me English heroines and American villains, but nothing that allowed me to step back and make sense of my immediate surroundings. Where were the people who looked and spoke like me? The number of Indian writers in English rose as I grew into adulthood but their work had no room for my community either. All I received were lazy typecasts perpetuated by Hindi cinema, where a token Catholic character, drawn randomly, like out of a lot, would stand in for a complex, vibrant group.

Eventually, I realised I had written about Orlem because I wanted to dismantle a few stereotypes, adding flesh and bone to what had become a reductive caricature. I wanted anyone who read the book to be transported to a place unlike any other and empathise with people who were twice removed from the national discourse: first, by virtue of being minorities; second, by economic marginalisation. I wanted to see what these characters would do in a situation where even the notion of hope struggled to exist. Without being bound to that place and community, my fictional universe would cease to exist.

It has been years since I last saw Orlem. I moved out a decade and a half ago and haven’t felt the need to visit it because I like the idea of distancing oneself from the past. It compels me to remake myself every decade or so. Still, when I close my eyes, I can see its streets vividly, as if frozen in amber. I can see the barbershop and grocery stores, the graveyard where my grandparents and relatives lie, the church my parents were married in, and the school where I met classmates who continue to be my friends. I see, now, that my fictional universe is one I carry with me wherever I go; a place burnished to gold by time, its rough edges smoothed over.

We don’t recall the places we think we know. We conjure them up as we go along, their shape changing constantly as we get older and move further away from them. The Orlem of my novel is not the Orlem I grew up in. The best I hoped for was to capture an approximation of it, to take a reader by the hand and say, “This is what it was like.” It’s probably why my mother cried.

Lindsay Pereira is a journalist and editor.

JCB Prize 2021 is a series with a weekly essay by the five shortlisted authors.

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