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Sarasota resident Tony D’Souza is author of “Whiteman” and the upcoming novel “The Konkans.” In this exclusive guest column for Khaas Baat, he writes about his Indian and American parents, growing up in Chicago, Peace Corps experience and how he stumbled into the subjects for his two novels.
My mother was born in Detroit in 1939, and my father was born in Bajpi near Mangalore, in 1942. My mother escaped poverty and joined the Peace Corps in 1966, hoping to make a difference in the world. She was sent to India, where she lived in Chikmagulur, Karnataka, teaching low-caste women how to make smokeless ovens. Not far from her house near the central market, my father’s family lived in Chikmagulur’s “Christian Colony.”

They were Catholics of the Konkan ethnic group, my grandfather was a police officer. While they spoke English and Kannada, Konkani was their mother tongue. My grandfather invited my mother to meals at the house; she and my father began a relationship that led to their elopement, and eventual relocation to Chicago.

We were decidedly middle class: my father was an insurance broker, my mother was a grade school teacher. At first, they kept close ties to the Indian community that began to blossom along Devon Avenue; as I and my sister grew, our status as a mixed-race family, as well as our being Catholic Konkans drew us away from the larger Sikh, Hindu and Muslim majorities.

Identity and wondering how I and my family fit into the fabric of America would be the theme of my teen years. When I was 19, I made my first trip as an adult to India. I went alone, looked to it as a sort of ‘homecoming.’ My very first taxi driver in Madras drove me around for an hour when he knew my hotel was only a few blocks from the airport; I quickly understood that I fit in in India as uncomfortably as I did in America.

At 25, I also joined the Peace Corps — I felt blessed by my upbringing, wanted to give something back. I was sent to the West African nation of Ivory Coast, where I lived in a hut in a remote Muslim village and worked as an AIDS educator. In September of 2002, Ivory Coast erupted into a bloody civil war and I had to make my way across the war zone to safety.

After three years on the continent, I returned to the States in 2003 and began work on a novel about the war and my time in that village. That book, “Whiteman”, was released last year to widespread acclaim, receiving prizes and honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Florida Gold Medal for Fiction, the New York Times, People Magazine, the LA Times, PEN and elsewhere. My byline now includes appearances on the Today Show, Dateline, the BBC, NPR, and publications in The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Salon and many other magazines.

In my early fiction, my narrators are often young American men who do not have racial identity conflicts, have Anglo names such as ‘Jack’ and ‘Alex,’ and who the reader identifies as white. Most people assume I am Jewish, Italian, Spanish or North African. And for the sake of ease, I often allow myself to pass for these things. But I grew up with India in my home and in my blood, and in the past year, I have finally turned my creative work in that direction, completing my second novel, “The Konkans”, which releases in February 2008.

This is the story of a Konkan man’s collaboration with the British as a police officer during the Raj, his involvement in the sandalwood smuggling trade, and what happens to him and his family after the British leave. But it’s also about his son’s later marriage to a white woman who comes to their town. The story eventually touches upon the little-known Goan Inquisition conducted by the Portuguese that created the Catholics of India through torture and fire.

I think all of us American-born children have to work hard to maintain our ties to India; I’m happy that my new book will give a voice to who we are, the Konkans, great India’s small group of Catholics, who suffered from colonialism as much as any Indians did, whose very existence as a people came from colonialism’s racism and violence.

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