WHEN YOU HEAR Indian surnames like Demello, D’Silva, D’Souza (the author) and the D’Sais of this book all these identify people who are Konkans, an Indian minority group that most of us probably never heard of. I have encountered individuals with these names that in no way indicated to me they were from India. The Konkans explains this: They reflect the “heritage” of people from Western India who came through a long period of Portuguese colonization that began with the landing of Vasco da Gama in that part of the world in 1498 and lasted until 1812.
Many reviews of this book describe it as the story of an immigrant family making their way in Chicago, but that is only partly true. The book’s title captures its larger theme, which is the story of the Konkans, their culture and history. It does this through observing the lives and times of two brothers who have emigrated from India to Chicago. We also learn the story of the father of these brothers, who thrived under British rule, but, with independence, did not.
The story’s narrator is Francisco D’Sai, the son of the older brother and his wife, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who served in the Konkan region and who has nothing but fond memories of her time there. The book itself is a series of episodes that taken together help us understand this family and this people. Francisco’s father, Lawrence D’Sai, has always longed to be a Western man and by wooing and marrying Denise, the PCV, he comes to America to literally seek his version of the American dream. It’s not a particularly attractive version of this dream but perhaps one steeped more in the reality than in the myth this idea summons up.
Lawrence is a middle manager with an insurance company and is more or less the token foreigner within this organization. He is often given responsibilities that others shy away from, such as laying off people during a downsizing at the firm. All the while, he moves his family to what he believes are the right neighborhoods and tries to perfect his golf game with the hope of joining the local country club, something that never seems to come to pass, though Lawrence never loses hope that it will.
In the meantime, Denise has come to disdain Lawrence and his denial of his heritage, which she has so embraced. She has a brief affair with Lawrence’s brother, Sam, who has not turned his back on his culture. But that is less than fulfilling for both of them, and eventually Sam marries a Konkan woman in an arranged marriage that takes place back in India.
This family drifts through life with little drama, as is true for most of us, more driven by circumstances than conscious decision making. Throughout we are reminded by various characters of the special place held by the Konkan cultural heroes, Vasco da Gama and St. Francis Xavier, who brought Christianity to their part of India and gave them an identity to which they still cling.
By the end of the book, however, we learn the truth of these “heroes” and the Portuguese occupation and the 252-year “Goan inquisition”: Christianity was literally forced down their throats convert or die; take Portuguese names or die. But this is so much less interesting than the myth the Konkans have conjured up for themselves as a special minority with their own history separate from that of the Hindu majority.
I admire Tony D’Souza’s talent and his ability to get under the skin of his characters. These are flawed and ordinary people struggling to get it right as they perceive what that is, within the context of immigrants making their way in America.
In addition, it seems to me, the book is a special look at the life of Denise, and the joy she experienced during her two-year sojourn in the Konkan culture as a PCV. Yet when she gets home, despite her marriage to a Konkan, it’s clear that she can, sadly, never recapture the magic of those two years. The lesson may be that she and we shouldn’t try but rather just be pleased to have had that experience in the first place. It is to Tony D’Souza’s credit that he makes this lesson available to us in this memorable novel.