It’s Savio Fonseca’s 75th birthday. His daughters Carol and Joanna, and son-in-law Sam, have come all the way from the US for the happy occasion. On the eve of the grand celebrations, it starts to rain heavily and Savio Fonseca’s paternal cousin Eduardo drops in with his family. At that very moment, the power fails, and candles are lit. Even as they all settle down comfortably in their seats and treat themselves to generous amounts of yummy bibinca, the setting proves perfect to swap stories, stories of their encounter with the preternatural. The fact that Joanna is woking on her third book, a fictitious collection of ghost stories, gives the gathering a perfect excuse to dig into their memories and recount their experiences with the ‘Other’.
Thus begins Jessica Faleiro’s debut novel, Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa. As we turn the pages, interesting stories start tumbling out, and skeletons from the cupboards too, piquing our interest. A relative visits the family matriarch in the form of a koel; a young priest participates in his first ever exorcism of a seven-year-old boy possessed by an old man’s spirit; a girl who dares to sleep in a haunted library, as part of her ragging by her seniors, is found hanging the next morning; in his hurry to reach home, a man takes a shortcut through an abandoned burial place, only to be pulled up for it by a face he can’t seem to forget; a 10-year-old sees her dead uncle’s chair rocking in his house next door...
Well, these are just teasers of the many spooky stories the book holds within itself. Stories that make us wonder if shadows have a face, or if the incessant cawing of the crow outside has a message for us, from ‘you-know-who’. Well, that’s how convincing Jessica Faleiro’s narrative is.
As the stories unfold, Afterlife... introduces us to some uncomfortable truths about the Fonseca family and more, truths that Savio had guarded his children against; that the Fonsecas are the result of an illegitimate affair between a Catholic priest and a Portuguese aristocratic lady at a time the Inquisition was about to end in Goa, adding spice to the narrative. The very fact that the author uses Goan history as the backdrop to her stories deserves to be commended, though the details of the Inquisition are, at times, highly disturbing.
At once lyrical and gripping, Afterlife... is a page-turner right from the word ‘go’. Though the stories in the collection are not scary in the real sense of the word, they are experiences which most of us have either heard, or read about, somewhere, sometime. But, there ends the comparison. Towards the end of the book is the real twist, something none of us are prepared for, that leaves us thoroughly shaken.
The author has lent all her characters, especially Lillian (Savio’s wife) and Joanna (the narrator), such great charm that their strength of character lingers in our minds long after we have closed the book. They could be anyone from our own families. And, the book has a distinct Goan flavour to it, in the mention of its cuisine and the happy-go-lucky attitude of the many characters who people the book. However, the title, Afterlife, Ghost Stories from Goa, is a bit misleading, for, the story narrated by Sam is set in Martha’s Vineyard, in faraway Massachusetts!
In short, a perfect read for a rainy evening, when the power snaps...
Afterlife: ghost stories from goa
2012, pp 157