Monday, March 10, 2008

The Konkans by Tony D'Souza



  • 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.


24 comments:

Ted said...

I knew absolutely nothing about the Konkan culture before reading your fascinating post. Great to have you back blogging again!

Literary Feline said...

A friend of mine recently read this book and recommended that I run, not walk, to the store to pick up a copy. I am glad to see that you enjoyed this one as well, Lotus. Thank you for a terrific review.

Sanjay said...

Hey there my friend, a wonderful review indeed!!! You always bring a unique perspective to your book reviews. I am glad that this book was different enough to make you read it despite the Indian immigrant story which has been and will continue to be revisited and rehashed.

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.

How does the book provide you an opportunity to get to know these folks better? Is it a case of you being drawn to the book because of the title and do you think that affected how you viewed the book?

Since this book is about Catholic Konkans, I liked how you explained a bit about them. Did you think the story and the characters of the two brothers Lawrence and Sam were typical? Immigrants do fall in these two categories, yet there are also those who seem to inhabit the two supposedly separate worlds as defined by the brothers. I think, the immigrant experience is more complex and nuanced.

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?

You ask a very intriguing question, perhaps it is easier for whites to integrate, but the accent is always a giveaway. It also depends on where you live and work and ones experiences. Americans also understand and acknowledge their heritage as a nation of immigrants. I must say that you will always find someone who does not accept you completely though.

Is Lawrence's marrying a white woman and wanting to get in to a country club the epitome of acceptance? Some country clubs often are reminders of a different caste system.. one based on wealth. And that exists anywhere around the world. Ironic that Lawrence's idea of acceptance was to get a foot in to an exclusive institution one that kept people out on some criteria.

*shakes head in dismay* at some Indians being prejudiced when it comes to skin color.

Thank you for telling us about the "Goa Inquisition" as well, I am not sure if Indian history books ever mention this.

Tony D'Souza must indeed have woven Konkani culture and history deftly in to the fabric of the story for you to feel this is a book that will tell your daughters something about their heritage. That's neat! I am glad you enjoyed the book, thank you for sharing this with us.

The Pixy Princess said...

I think that an interesting point is also how for the longest time (and even till date in some cases) many Goans did not consider themselves "Indian". Consequently, many of their grandchildren (like me) were dabbed with the same brush. I still feel like I have to "defend" my Indianess to other people when I come from a Catholic family and grew up in an essentailly CAtholic neighbourhood in Bandra.

Olivia said...

I'd find the story interesting, specially from the perspective of two brothers.

I can say from experience that my parents, a mixed couple, both experienced more racism in London than they did in Texas, of all places.

My father, who is mixed Greek-Icelandic and only goes deep olive in the summer, felt excluded here and was even beaten up as a kid, but was finally accepted for himself in Houston.

My mother who was initially nervous, was so loved by the Texans we met that she forgot her colour for the first time since leaving Guyana, where incidentally she had regularly mingled with whites and even dated Europeans.

Radha said...

Hey, didn't know your husband is a Konkani :-) Maybe we could chat in Konkani someday (although my Konkani is quite awful!)
Btw, hope you received my email?

Beenzzz said...

This book would be good for your girls to read. I hadn't heard of the Konkan's before until now. Thank you for telling us about them.
I'm not sure about assimilation based on skin color. I think it's difficult for first generation immigrants no matter where they go and who they are. I guess it truly depends on the situation. In the early 20th century, the Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews had a difficult time in the U.S. I suppose in their case, they posed a large group threat. With a handful of Indians, I nan only imagine that they too (even as willing as they may seem) are always Indian by birth first and whatever else, second.
This sounds like a wonderful book that I must add to my gigantic list!!!!

Lotus Reads said...

@Ted ~ Thank you! If feels good to be back although I am not doing very well in the blog visiting department. I hope to visit you very soon!


@Literary Feline ~ Hello, nice to "see" you! You'll have to let me know what you think of the book if and when you do read it.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanj!

While the title pulled me in initially it was the meat of the book that made me stay. The author does a fine job of sharing with usthe history, geography, culture and other influences that have made the Catholic Konkans evolve into what they are today.

Is Lawrence's marrying a white woman and wanting to get in to a country club the epitome of acceptance? Some country clubs often are reminders of a different caste system.. one based on wealth. And that exists anywhere around the world. Ironic that Lawrence's idea of acceptance was to get a foot in to an exclusive institution one that kept people out on some criteria

You make such a great point. Lawrence did not want to be discriminated against on account of the color of his skin and did everything he could to attain a lifestyle that a white affluent American would. Why a white American and not any other race? Well, you could say that aping a successful white person was what most immigrant Indians strove for (blame it on our colonial hangover if you will).

*shakes head in dismay* at some Indians being prejudiced when it comes to skin color.

Yes, sadly, many of us are. You would be hard-pressed to find a dark-skinned model in any commercial in India. Apparently products that they endorse simply don't do as well as the ones modeled by a someone with a fairer skin. I don't like admitting it, but those are the facts.

The Goa Inquisition was new to me too. The research the author did on the Inquisition came from Dr.T.R. De Souza's "Details of the Goan Inquisition", should you wish to read about it in more detail.

Sanj, I thank you very much for your comment and the questions!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Pixie Princess!

Thank you so much for your input. You are right, some Goans do consider themselves more Portuguese than Indian. I guess that tells you what a great job the Portuguese did of forging a new identity onto the Konkan people. I have read that many were forced to give up their religion (Hinduism or Islam) or be tortured...others became Catholics because it advanced careers or brought them tax relief. Either way, looking back on all of it now, it was very sad what happened to the Konkan people.

diyadear said...

hey im konkani too.. how nice to know about this book and hey some of us konkani's belong to kerala too :)

gautami tripathy said...

Good to see you posting again! I have heard of this book. Your review is so very good. I like your perspective.

Neeku said...

really liked your review... I might get this for spring break. Thanks for sharing :)

Id it is said...

Thanks for introducing a whole new culture via this review. I will most certainly read this one. The history of the Konkans (ancestors were both Hindus and Muslims) is rather interesting and makes me wonder what kind of Catholicism is practiced by them and how that form evolved to appease the two diverse groups that were amalgamated.

Like you, I too have been avoiding readings about the immigrant experience (have been trying to get through The Glass Palace for the last week or so), but this one has the lure of the unknown for me so I can't wait to read it.

Laura said...

Hi Buddy!!! Sorry I have been so absent lately....have been taking an online course to get my paralegal certificate....lots of work....

anyway, this book was on my list to get, and now, of course, after reading your review it shoots up to #1 to read ASAP! I think your explanation of Konkan sealed the deal because I did not realize what that was at all.....so interesting.

Hope all is well with you!

Anali said...

I've never heard of the Konkan culture before, so thanks for spreading some knowledge. It sounds like a very interesting book and will be nice for your daughters to have as a reference.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Olivia!

I know I've been very infrequent in the blogosphere and I've hardly had the time to visit anyone...thanks for not giving up on me. Love that you shared your parents' experience with racism...perhaps the UK was more racist in those days (I've heard some terrible stories of racism towards Jamaicans who had to resettle there) because they were less used to immigrants than the US was. Glad your parents enjoyed Texas! What a great mix of cultures you are!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Radha!

Yes, I received your e-mail and responded as well. Thanks so much! Are you Konkani from Goa? Sadly, Hubby doesn't speak a word of it. His parents are from Mangalore originally but he was born and brought up in Bangalore.

Hi, Beenzzz!

How are ya? Yes, true, not too many people have heard of the Konkans and that is perhaps because in INdia they are not usually referred to as such. We are more used to grouping people state or city wise. So although people from Goa and Mangalore would both be Konkans they would be referred to as either Goans or Mangloreans.

True, racism can take so many forms.

Lovely to see your comment, thanks!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Diya

You taught me something new! I hadn't realized there were Konkani people in Kerala but after looking at the map, it does make sense because the coast extends all the way to your state! :)
Your food, which I am guessing is a combination of Kerala and Konkan techniques must be out of this world! I still have the biryani recipe you sent me! :)

@Gautami ~ Welcome back to you too, it's been ages!

@Neeku ~ You're quite welcome. I was glad to have discovered this book.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

this is a must read for me too .. it has a part of my roots too.. i am a konkani too:)we seem to have migrated to kerala when the portugese came....we have our temples still back in goa. now we are a miture of konkan and kerala culture....:)

bint battuta said...

Thanks for posting about this book - this (half-)Konkan will certainly keep an eye out for it!

Tony D'Souza said...

Thank you for reviewing my book.
Tony D'Souza

Lotus Reads said...

@Nanditha ~ Thanks for your input...so you and Diya share a common heritage. Do you visit Goa much?

@Bint Battuta ~ Yes, do. I think you will treasure the read!

Lotus Reads said...

@Tony D'Souza ~ You're quite welcome. It was such an enjoyable read. I look forward to your next one!