Family values sound like a solid bedrock on which to raise children. (Certainly, politicians think so.) But what if one spouse prizes what the other despises, as is the case with the D’Sais of Chicago?
Francisco D’Sai is the firstborn son of a firstborn son of a firstborn son (you get the idea) of a Konkan family that views birth order as destiny. The Konkans, sometimes called “the Jews of India,” are a Roman Catholic minority who live on that country’s west coast. They converted to Christianity when Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama showed up on the beach in the 16th century and set up an Inquisition.
The Konkans, the second novel by Tony D’Souza (author of award-winning “Whiteman”) is less a novel and more a series of interconnected short stories, set in India and Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, that pivot around three central characters: Francisco’s mother and father, and his uncle Sam.
Lawrence, his dad, who worships the British with a fervor greater than Rudyard Kipling at his most colonial, longs for the West. When a white Peace Corps volunteer shows up in his village, she might as well have INS stamped on her forehead. Chicago isn’t Oxford, but Lawrence and his dad see blond, ponytailed Denise as the means to make the D’Sai family fortunes.
Denise, who fell in love with India during her three years there, sees Lawrence as a way to hold on to his country. “In marrying my father, she’d brought home with her the one living and breathing souvenir of that place who could also get a job in America,” Francisco says.
The D’Sai patriarch, Santan, swiftly arranges a marriage and then launches a nastiness campaign to force Denise out of India.
Once in the US, Lawrence pursues, with single-minded determination, an assimilation program of meatloaf, golf, tennis, the “right” neighborhoods, and, in one heartbreaking episode, country-club membership. After he gets a look at his mother-in-law, he realizes with horror that he’s married “beneath his caste.”
Denise, meanwhile, longs for India and loses patience with Lawrence’s pretensions and his drinking, which takes off about the time his two younger brothers come to America and move into their resentful brother’s basement.
Sam, the older of the two, is the family charmer. While easier with his own identity than Lawrence, he’s unsure whether he belongs in his adopted country. Eventually, he and Denise embark on an affair – with 4-year-old Francisco as chaperone. (The one time my suspension of disbelief snapped a cable was when the older Francisco tells his mom that not only did he know his mother and uncle’s adultery, but that he was glad about it. Nobody could call Lawrence and Denise’s marriage happy, but that’s an awful lot of tolerance to expect from a son.)
But even freewheeling Sam can’t escape D’Sai family expectations. He falls in love with Jacqueline, an African-American woman, but while their skin is pretty much the same shade, Lawrence and the D’Sais erupt.
Francisco explains his dad’s prejudices as follows: “While my father didn’t truly hate anyone but himself, he didn’t like Mexicans because he was taken for one by white people, and this shocked him every time, because my father thought of himself as white.... As far as black people went, my father couldn’t care less. He’d never had to deal with them. Until my uncle brought over Jacqueline. And even then, it wasn’t about the girl.”
The fallout from Sam’s inability to face family disapproval – even from 7,000 miles away – lands like a downed elephant on Sam and Asha, the poor Konkan girl who gets stamped with the D’Sai family seal of approval and ends up as Sam’s arranged bride. Asha, who is ignored by Sam, explores America on her own and shows real promise as a character, but is sadly limited to a couple of chapters.
A storyteller with confidence
The tales don’t necessarily follow in chronological order, and occasionally a vignette appears more than once. Periodically, a character just vanishes or moves to Arizona.
But D’Souza is a relaxed storyteller, confident of both his abilities and a reader’s perceptiveness. Things that start out cute – lyrics to a popular song, the family’s taste for pork barbecue – take on an awful resonance by the time he’s done. D’Souza has also got a smoothly readable style and he works with rich material. “The Konkans” opens with the episode when his uncles try to buy a pig for a feast day and wind up with an angry, 150-pound razorback in their trunk.
Then there’s the time Denise and Sam sneak a cousin into the US via the wintry Canadian woods (in a sport coat and loafers, no less). Sam loves to tell his beloved nephew D’Sai family stories, many of which star family patriarch Santan, a police commissioner who faced down poachers (then stole the sandalwood himself), and an angry mob of Hindus.
The book does have some structural weaknesses. The main one is that the narrative doesn’t end; it just stops. But when your only real complaint is that you’re reluctant to leave the characters, you know a novel has done its job.