- Publisher: Harcourt
- Pub. Date: February 2008
- ISBN-13: 9780151015191
- Pages: 308pp
Some time ago I decided I had overdosed on the Indian immigrant story and decided to take a break from that particular genre but Tony D'Souza's "The Konkans" (a semi-autobiographical story of an Indian Catholic family's migration and assimilation into the US in the early '70's ) made me change my mind. My husband being from the Konkan community, I have a special affiliation with these people and I felt the book gave me the opportunity to get to know them better.
So, who are the Konkans? They are a people whose ancestors inhabited the Konkan coast of India. The Konkan coast has some of the most amazing beaches and includes Bombay, Mangalore and Goa among others cities. The Catholic Konkans are set apart from other Indians mainly due to their religion, food (they are one of the few communities in India that eat both, beef and pork) and their custom of giving their kids Christian names. Their ancestors were Hindus and Muslims originally but converted to Catholicism in the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama and a priest called Francis Xavier who traveled along with him for the express purpose of gaining more Catholics for the Church.
There are two main protagonists (brothers) in the story and both leave India for a new (hopefully better) life in the US. The older brother, Lawrence D'Sai, does everything to shed his Indianness like it was an old tattered coat he was ashamed of. He embraces western clothes, buys a house in the suburbs, marries a white girl from Detroit and set his sights on getting membership to the local country club.
Sam, his younger brother, found it impossible to sever his ties with India. Although he now lived in the US he continued to eat his Indian food, dress in his traditional lungi (garment)when lounging at home and regaled his young nephew Francisco (also the narrator) with stories from India,especially the history of the Konkani people.
Even though both these brothers had such a different approach to assimilation in the US, neither one was accepted by their adopted country which leads one to ask the question : does race/skin color decide how successful one is at assimilating into American society? Do white people find it easier to integrate into a predominantly white society than colored people?
I think Tony D'Souza is a great storyteller...his tone is relaxed and laid back and he infuses his characters with enough strengths and flaws making them very human and not cardboard cutouts. I think he gets the immigrant experience right, but as with many second-generation Indians I think he slightly exaggerates the complexities of the Indian society with its caste and class structure and may offend some Indian (especially Konkan) males with his portrayal of them, still, on the whole, I think he does an admirable job of putting his story together.
Along with the compelling telling of the immigrant story, there are many illuminating passages in the book describing the history and culture of the Konkan people...I especially loved reading about the Konkan wedding. The author writes about it with such exquisite detail that it gave me goosebumps! Another favorite was the page-long explanation for why some of us Indians are prejudiced when it comes to skin color. One of the final chapters in the book "The Americans" is particularly hard hitting as it describes the Goa inquisition and the drive to abolish Hinduism on the Konkan coast.
This is a book I am going to have to keep for my daughters, after all, it contains a part of their history within its pages.