Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book Review: BLOODLINE BANDRA

Title: Bloodline Bandra
Author: Godfrey Joseph Pereira
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 264








The first thing that invited me to read Bloodline Bandra was the most charming cover. How can you not want to enter an image infused with an era now almost gone? The old storied houses, the cross erected in the centre, the Mangalore-tiled roofs. The two pigs were definitely part of that charm. And above them all, the predatory eagle hovering over the charming vista, threatening paradise.

Random elements from the cover image are used to serve as an introductory motif to each of the three books that make up this story. Book I sees the two fat pigs, symbolising the inherent nature of Pali village, and the pigs that have as great a right to stake claim to being the original residents of the area as the East Indians themselves. Book II highlights the image of the eagle, presaging the challenges that David will be up against. And Book III showcases the cross with the crow poised on a corner, symbolic of the nonchalance with which Pali village views the pace and other yardsticks of success of the rest of the world, and at the same time affirming its stoic, eternal nature, all forgiving, ever welcoming.

The story is about the quest for the great American Dream, and how it unknowingly perpetuates the exploitation and debasement of people.

David Francis Cabral belongs to Pali Village, in Bandra, Bombay, and yet he is not completely of it. The quaint lingo of his fellow villagers, their particular mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that allow them to revel in their believed superiority, the double entendre they indulge in, effecting shutting others out, turn him off.

When David’s childhood friends return to Pali for a holiday, he is struck by the life they describe, and completely taken in by their stories of success, of having made it in Dubai and Oman. Their open disdain of Bombay and the deteriorating conditions make him feel ashamed of what he is, of how far he has somehow slipped from them. The barbs of his friends sting him and he feels weary of the only life he has ever known.

He longs to build a better life for himself, to get out of the pond that he sees himself stuck in. Dissatisfied with his life and keen to do better, he applies for a job as a journalist in New York and is overjoyed when he is hired by Asia Times.

Book II sees David in America but it is nothing like his imagination. He receives a rude shock when he learns that he will have to live in the office and work for a pittance. If he is fired, he will be an illegal alien. His visa will not let him find another job unless another company is willing to sponsor him.

Manu Laxman, the owner and editor of Asia Times, lords it over the hellhole that the newspaper is, exploiting and demoralizing the cheap workforce he hires from India. For David, work offers no saving grace as he is expected to plagiarise and rewrite shamelessly. He writes home, inventing stories of a great life. When he falls in love with Hatsumi Nakamura, a Japanese cellist and music student, it is the only bright spark in his sordid life. The two have a relationship that has no future because both are bound by cultural norms and circumstance.

David befriends a homeless man, one who has willingly dropped out of the world, a man who once worked with Oppenheimer. This man prompts David to question his idea of success and achievement.

The author recreates for us the bravado and swagger of a city through the medium of its people. Manu Laxman asks him to do an original story in return for better conditions and the sponsorship of a Green Card. David chases a feeble lead, even delivering a package of what he suspects is a drug, just to get his source and his story. In spite of all his efforts, he is fired when he falls sick.

In Book III, David is rescued by a kind couple from Pali who have made NY their home. He finds another job, equally demeaning, as editor and writer for India InTune. Achyuta, the publisher, exploits him. The Promised Land continues to elude David. He finds himself a victim of modern day slavery, where low wages and the fear of becoming an illegal resident prove to be his undoing, forcing him into long, backbreaking hours of work for less than the minimum wage. Meanwhile, Achyuta's wife, Kamala, tempts David into assisting in the accidental murder of her husband, in exchange for the sponsorship of his Green Card.

Will David continue to subject himself to back-breaking labour and soul-deadening shame? Will he ever be successful in America?

So good is the writing that before long we begin to identify with David and find ourselves plagued by the questions that torment him. Even if we have never stepped beyond Indian shores, we understand the pain of being forced into a quandary and not being able to get away from it all. We miss the village he had sought to escape from, and our hearts ache at the thought of Hatsumi and David having to go their separate ways.

The characters, especially those that people Pali village, are very entertaining. None of their stories are taken to any conclusion. They serve only to introduce us to the world of Pali, and yet we are entranced by them. Pereira has brought them all alive. Their amusing nicknames illustrate their characters. The pages, and the village, are filled with such gems as Salt Peter, Lorna Leg Spread, Bosco Big Stomach. It is a world where one characteristic or one weakness can serve to brand you for life, and the author sees them all with an eye that is at once indulgent and critical. We all know such types and archetypes, but few of us could have brought them to life so well as Pereira has.

Here we meet stalwarts like Salt Peter who went to college for one year, as legend went, and insisted that "the bleddy big books" had "transformed him into an absolute idiot." We come to know of this proud race of people, the East Indians, their history, and of how their superstitions and faith reside side by side, their rules regarding parental responsibility and other interesting nuggets of information,

Allowing us to see them through David’s perspective, we understand how he might like and loathe them at the same time, how he is one among them, and yet longs to distance himself from the individuals and types that have populated his culture and his village for longer than he has lived. In fact, Pereira has built the world of Pali so beautifully. You actually find yourself transported to the bylanes of the village, completely transfixed by it. The anecdotes and stories that pepper the Pali chapter of his life are hilarious and amusing.

Even though the story is written from the third person perspective of David, it is a semi-autobiographical account of Pereira's own experience. It deftly combines two separate works that Pereira had written, the agonising account of his experience in America with the account of life in the sleepy Pali village.

The reason why Bloodline Bandra succeeds is that Pereira proves how tightly we are all bound to our bloodlines, the places we hail from, and how hard it is to get them out of our system. How it must feel to constantly yearn for a place one has moved away from, while longing to belong to a place that shuts its door in our faces.


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