Assimilation and Its Discontents

THE KONKANS
By Tony D’Souza
Harcourt, 308 pages, $25

In the early 16th century, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama came ashore on the western coast of India, claiming the land for Portugal and the local people for Christ. The Indians converted by da Gama developed a culture distinct from that of the subcontinent’s Hindus and Muslims. The Konkans eat pork and beef, speak a language derived from Portuguese called Konakani and, in the 500 years since da Gama’s arrival, have evolved a reputation as merchants. Yet their customs retain traditional Hindu elements—Konkan weddings, for example, include Hindu dances.

How do proud Catholics like the Konkans reconcile their devotion to the One True God with India’s dizzying religious and cultural diversity? Same way everyone copes with difference: through a combination of denial and amused contempt. “Hindus, surprisingly, are rather admired by the Konkans,” explains Francisco, the half-Konkan, half-white narrator of Tony D’Souza’s promising second novel. “Though the Konkans know that the Hindus are all going to burn in hell in the end, still, who can’t help but like all that music and dancing? … Hindus are generally a kind and gentle people, rather harmless. They believe in a god who is a monkey. Of course they got mad about all that stuff during the Raj. But who could blame them really? And look at how well they held their temper afterward. Thank you for making them do that, Mahatma Gandhi.”

In The Konkans, the epic of Konkan conversion casts a long shadow over Chicago’s D’Sai family, headed by Lawrence, a well-educated Konkan immigrant striving to assimilate to the 1970’s American corporate culture he’s worked all his life to be a part of, and his wife, Denise, a white woman with working-class Midwestern roots. Peeling back the layers of family myth and Konkan lore, their son Francisco, now an adult looking back over stories he only half-understood as a child, finds everyday human weakness and unexpected moments of courage. Mr. D’Souza is mining territory ripe for novelization, tracing through his characters an upheaval still under way in America’s hierarchies of class and social status.

The Chicago of the 1970’s Mr. D’Souza describes was on the front line of a new wave of immigration, when immigrants from the Indian subcontinent in particular were just beginning to arrive in numbers sufficient to establish neighborhoods and business networks. When Francisco’s newly arrived uncles (Lawrence’s less-Westernized younger brothers) ridiculously set out to buy a live pig to barbecue in honor of the Konkans’ patron saint, the black neighborhood butcher catches them up on the history so far of non-WASPs in America: “At one time, there was nothing in Chicago but blacks and Jews and Italians and Irish. But now there are all these new breeds. All those Jews and micks and Italians and Polacks aren’t anything anymore but just white. … But those days are done and gone. Because now we got beaners and Chinks and Nips and gooks and I don’t even know what to call you boys. … Pig-eating Indians, hey? We’ve got to think up a good name for you. A nice nasty name so you can fit in.”

But the D’Sai family won’t fit in. They’re destined to occupy an unsteady niche in an emerging social order that sees cultural identity as one commodity among others negotiable for profit. Lawrence D’Sai learns to love single-malt scotch and early-morning tee times, and insists to his wife that the glass ceiling set for him at his well-paid white-collar job as an executive at an insurance firm is only temporary, and is anyway set high enough.

His wife, on the other hand, displays an old-fashioned American righteousness—“You are delusional, my poor Lawrence,” she wishes she could tell him. “Why are you the only colored man in the company pictures, why did they put you on the cover of their brochure? And why have you been passed over for promotion twice already for white boys from East Coast colleges who started working there after you?”

Who’s the sucker and who’s the realist? The loneliness and dissatisfaction that permeate the D’Sai marriage revolve around this question, and Tony D’Souza dramatizes brilliantly the new varieties of guilt and anxiety bestowed upon us by a society rationalized on an increasingly global scale.

Lawrence’s response to his wife cuts to the quick—“[Y]ou are not white like I thought you were. You are a poor girl from a Detroit slum, who got an education by some odd luck. But I’ve since seen your family, and they are nothing here or anywhere. …” Indeed. The blacks and Jews and Italians from the old neighborhood have nothing on Lawrence D’Sai.

 

Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at ddacosta@observer.com.

Assimilation and Its Discontents