Bound by Family Ties

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By Rabindranath Maharaj,
the author, most recently, of "A Perfect Pledge"
Thursday, March 13, 2008

THE KONKANS

By Tony D'Souza

Harcourt. 308 pp. $25

Writers like Bharati Mukherjee and Jamaica Kincaid have long been exploring the fragmented identities of immigrants who move toward their versions of the American dream but gaze back longingly at their homelands. In the books written by second-generation Americans, there are subtle shifts to this dichotomy, most noticeably an acknowledgment of the benefits of multiple identities in an increasingly globalized environment. Although these authors express a wistful curiosity about the lives of parents and grandparents, their writing is frequently less melancholic, a benefit, perhaps, of lighter baggage.

"The Konkans," a new novel by Tony D'Souza, follows this pattern. D'Souza, whose first novel, "Whiteman," was published last year to much acclaim, examines here the divergent reactions to cultural dislocation. Characters who find themselves by exploring their ancestry are hardly new (think Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose" or Alex Haley's "Roots"), but D'Souza injects this common story line with a gentle humor that displaces romanticization or cliche.

As is his previous book, "The Konkans" is constructed of several interlocking narratives, some elaborate and others little more than anecdotes. The story unfolds through the eyes of Francisco D'Sai, who witnesses the growing separation of his parents. His father is desperately trying to shed his Indian heritage, while his American mother still cherishes the romance of her time in India. Soon after her return to America, his mother finds a kindred spirit in Sam, her husband's brother. Young Francisco takes us though their affair and the dwindling of that relationship as Sam moves on to an African American woman and finally into an arranged marriage with a bride from India.

D'Souza treats this little menage with an admirable evenhandedness. In a typical argument the father mocks the mother for her modest upbringing ("You are a poor girl from a Detroit slum, who got an education by some odd luck"), and she points out that he is nothing more than a brown plaything in America. But we learn that, at better moments, they extend courtesies to each other. And as the mother's affair with her brother-in-law progresses, D'Souza, as if unwilling to draw too much sympathy to the father, mentions that of the three, he was the happiest.

But this is not entirely true, and the young narrator is increasingly attracted to his uncle's stories of India and of his grandfather, whose status had swiftly unraveled following the departure of the British from the subcontinent. Sam's stories balance the more fanciful versions told by the narrator's father, and as the novel progresses, the reader has to establish the truth from several countervailing disclosures. This is a risky strategy for a writer, but D'Souza handles his subjects with such easy familiarity that the air of authenticity never really diminishes.

Large sections of the book are devoted to the Konkans of India, a community both isolated and privileged because of its Catholic faith and its closeness to the Portuguese colonizers of India's western coast. The book explores the mutual suspicion the Konkans -- often called the "Jews of India" -- felt toward other groups on the subcontinent. Francisco is constantly reminded of his community's history and of his special status and obligations as "the firstborn of a firstborn." And this history, we are led to believe, is quite glorious, beginning with Vasco da Gama's providential journey to India. At the book's end though, we discover that da Gama's expedition was not quite as providential as portrayed in the earlier sections and that the Portuguese were far from benevolent overlords.

Although these are all charming -- and to some extent, necessary -- tales, the constant shifts in time and place give the novel a slightly episodic and disjointed feel that distances us from the characters. But when the narrator returns to the stories of his parents and his uncle, the book comes alive once more. Francisco's father, trying futilely to assimilate, is a particularly poignant figure. Even when he is finally promoted at work, he soon realizes that his new job is to be an ax man, to fire other minorities.

There are no heroes in "The Konkans" -- not the Portuguese, not Francisco's parents or grandfather, not even his uncle. As we follow the unraveling of these characters' lives, we sense there can be no conventionally happy endings here.

This is an ambitious second novel. It acknowledges the gaps in our histories, the personal and cultural falsehoods with which we have grown comfortable. As with his previous book, some readers might wonder at the similarities between writer and narrator. But that's beside the point. D'Souza treats his subjects with compassion even as he recognizes their weaknesses. There is a kind of freshness and bubbling wonder in this book, the sense of a writer genuinely searching for answers, sidetracked occasionally but determined to complete his journey.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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