Monday, April 07, 2008

Fact disguised as fiction

Surely, this is the age of fact disguised as fiction in Indian writing in English. While, at one level, all fiction is autobiographical, Indian writers seem to be increasingly pouring personal details into their writing. When Arundhati Roy dedicated her 1997 Booker-winning novel, The God of Small Things, to her mother, “who taught me to say ‘excuse me’ before interrupting her in public”— a line repeated in the novel—it was no ordinary dedication. It was Roy’s way of letting the reader know that Rahel and Estha, the protagonists of her novel, had more to share with herself and her brother than fiction would, or should, allow.

Now comes The Konkans by Tony D’Souza, the Chicago-raised son of an Indian father and American mother. The hero, and narrator, of this novel is Francisco D’Sai, also the Chicago-raised son of Lawrence, an Indian, and Denise, a white American woman. If that’s not enough, Denise, like Tony’s own mother, serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in India, where she meets Lawrence. Putting two and two together, it is hard not to think of The Konkans as autobiographical fiction. Whiteman, D’Souza’s first novel, about an aid worker in West Africa, also had autobiographical elements.

The Konkans are a close-knit Catholic community in India, who, as a character in the book recounts, “had been waiting” for the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama “since the beginning of time”. As with all myths, there are truths and semi-truths in this contention. While the Konkans indeed converted to Christianity, the process was brutal, and involved outlawing Hindu sacred texts, music, clothing and foods. In The Konkans, D’Souza enmeshes the historical with the personal in constructing a story of identity and the timelessness of love.

Lawrence D’Sai is the first-born son of an illustrious Konkan family of Chikmaglur, a prosperous town in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Right from childhood, he has been treated differently from his siblings, because of the vaunted status of first-born sons in Konkan families. So, while his brothers while away their time in Chikmaglur doing menial jobs, Lawrence is sent off to Bombay to work as a banker.

However, when a white woman, Denise, visits Karnataka on a Peace Corps mission, Lawrence sees this as an opportunity to rise ever higher, and returns to Chikmaglur to woo her—she is, after all, his passport to a land removed from “all the noise, the crowd, the filth…the corruption and lack of opportunity.”

In describing India from Denise’s view, D’Souza expertly presents the country from the eyes of the outsider, much like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala did to resounding effect in Heat and Dust. So while Lawrence cannot wait to marry Denise and move to the US, the lady is unsure of returning. Where Lawrence sees crowd and filth, Denise is more prone to noticing

    “the flowers in the women’s hair, the call of the fishmonger in the mornings as he pushed the cart through the streets, the fuss and hullabaloo that went along with every simple transaction in the market for the day’s salt and rice.”

To Denise, India is a spiritual destination, where “wearing a white sari and teaching low-caste women how to make smokeless ovens” come to her naturally. But ultimately, she and Lawrence do depart for the US, leaving in their wake an expectant Konkan family and, for Denise, the promise of an eternal Indian connection. Neither is aware yet that what they have taken for happiness, will only be a livable compromise.

It is to D’Souza’s credit that he does not resort to clich├ęs in sketching the matrimonial failures of the D’Sais. To Lawrence, America is the land of opportunity, where his insatiable thirst for recognition will launch his family on a never-ending spiral. To Denise, however, it is a land that she does not, and never will, identify as home. Battling nostalgia and regret, she goads Lawrence to sponsor his two brothers, Samuel (Sam) and Lesley to come to the US.

It is the love between Sam and Denise that forms the other major strand of the book. D’Souza writes of their friendship, and the later discovery of a taboo love, with sensitivity and candor. Sam is the man that Lawrence could never be, and though Denise and Lawrence will never go their own ways, they will never truly be one either.

The Konkans is a sprawling work, suggestive of the history of this tiny Christian community. It tackles, though only in passing, issues like racism and colonial intrigue. It is also a very personal book, reminiscent of all family histories and myths. Tony D’Souza, like Arundhati Roy, is a courageous writer. He has given us a work that will guide us on the journey of life even as it brings a smile to our face.


chachaji said...

Nice review, Vikram. Especially liked the point about all fiction being autobiographical at some level.

I blogged a review here:

Vikram Johri said...

Thanks, chachaji (could not get your name from the blog).