"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Konkans

You might ask why I picked a book with a 2008 publication date to read when there are so many from 100 or even 500 years ago to choose from. The answer is I didn’t pick it: my English teacher assigned it.

The Konkans opens with the first person narrator describing his American mother and Indian father in their new home together. As the story progresses, frequent flashbacks reveal how his mother went to India in the Peace Corps and met his father and their subsequent move to America. These elements of the story parallel the author, Tony D’Sousa’s own life and heritage in many ways.

D’Sousa talked of this autobiographical element at his reading and book signing at Shasta College. While the book is fiction and should be considered as such, things like his Peace Corps mother, Konkan father, two uncles emigrating to America, and the pig incident are all true to the history of his family (although the squad cars and helicopter at the supermarket to investigate the squealing from the trunk must be artistic license, or what D’Sousa called family legend). How far this personal history could be compared to the incidents in the book is hard to tell and, really, irrelevant to the artistry of the book.

The repetition of certain stories and frequent flashbacks lend an interesting structure to the book. When a story is repeated with a slightly different spin or when motives are revealed, it changes the way the story is received. One is often left seeing supposed heroes to be not so magnanimous as originally presented. What if other stories not retold are equally distorted, or at least, could be told differently.

Probably you are wondering what or who the Konkans are. They are native Indians who were converted to Catholicism in the 1500s by Francis Xavier. This early acquaintance with western culture left the Konkan people open and friendly to further western influence, particularly the British during their rule of India.

An interesting view on cultural transitions is presented in the book. Never is it explicitly said that leaving one culture for another is damaging but one is struck by the consuming desire of Lawrence to fit into American life. This desire puts stress on his wife and family, while the inevitable letdowns and failures to fit in lead to alcohol and pent up anger. Everything Indian “reminded him in an uncomfortable way of where he was from and who he in fact was” (6).

Sam, too, it appears, is conflicted within himself over whether he is an Indian or an American. He blames his struggles on his sister-in-law Denise, asking, “Why have you done these things, Denise? Why did you go to India? Why did you bring us here? It is you. Everything that has happened has always been because of you” (205). If she had not married his brother and brought them all to America, he seems to be saying, he would have lived and died a set, predictable existence in India.

This inner turmoil reaches a climax when he must choose to marry an Indian girl his father has picked for him or continue dating American girls. He chooses the former and is “‘unhappy since I stepped off the plane’” (204). Yet the question is: if he had chosen an American girl would his state of mind be any different or would he still be torn by regret over his choice. The conflict is not so much over two girls, as over two cultures. I probably would not have noticed this aspect of D’Sousa’s story if I were not simultaneously doing a comparison paper on two stories that deal with this theme of cultural identity.

The most disappointing part of the book is the illicit affair between the narrator’s mother and his Uncle Sam. Although Sam starts out as the most fun-loving and likable character in the book, he ends as the most depressed and depressing. He wastes his life on pleasure and folly until he cannot even enjoy sin anymore. Yet this does not stop him up to the last page. Denise, too, is a listless sinner. Though she realizes “what she’d done with my uncle was a nasty thing” (113), she never does anything about it.

There is an inevitable monotony in their shared lives by the end of the story. No repentance, no epiphany one way or the other, not even any passion. When thought about this way the book could actually have some value in proving that “there is nothing so monotonous as evil.” No one reading through to the end of the book could want a life that drags on as Sam and Denise’s does. D’Sousa’s one flaw then is not finishing Ravi Zacharias’s statement about the monotony of evil by showing how “beautiful [is the] good.”

The Konkans, Tony D'Sousa (Harcourt, first ed. 2008).

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