(Published in The Hindu, June 10 2018)
In this debut collection of stories, Roanna Gonsalves meditates, without sentimentality but with fitting sensitivity, on the experiences of those split between home and the future; between loaded pasts and hope masquerading as confident desire. It is really this promise of tomorrow — any better tomorrow — that drives their universe. Reality on both ends, of course, is starker than the vivid colours of their enthusiasm, shrouding as it does a hundred anxieties. The characters are often full of guilt and panic, desperate to somehow fit in and get on. There is anxiety about endless middle-class concerns, and then there is anxiety about concealing this confession of middleclassdom. There is aspiration, but that which assumes the nervous incarnation of blingy pretension. The writer is kind, however: as a character sagely remarks, “The labored showiness of migrants is to be understood and accepted as one understands and accepts one’s teenage embarrassments.” And then there are men and women, with layers like an onion, their skins peeling away in a foreign land, as they scramble to replace them with something that at least looks marginally better.
Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney is not, to be clear, a depressive book. On the contrary, there is plenty of wit, enough laughter, and many stories full of original sparkle. What is clear throughout, however, is the almost unnerving gaze of the writer. The voices — some of them in the first person — are convincing, and the portraits they paint are sharp in clarity. Gonsalves’s words are woven well, and there are sentences that sometimes scale the heights of literary magic. There is a story that can send, out of the blue, a chill down one’s spine, and there is one that makes the reader sit up with unadulterated delight. There are themes ranging from racism (in its smiling and unsmiling variants — the expression “curry faggot” was for me a revelation) to sexual abuse. The collection, then, is the work of a writer of great ability and range, and of a keen observer of people and society. And while most of the stories are set in Australia, the inner conversations, notions, furies, and frustrations of its characters know no geography. In this lies the triumph of this book, which transcends manmade limits in its appeal even as it tells tales of those whose essential quest is pivoted on lines and boundaries.
Gonsalves’s characters are almost all instantly recognisable. There is a story of a mother and a daughter, where the latter ultimately realises that her mother’s “sense of identity had been whittled away” in a bad marriage “until all she had left was my future.” India, in another story, is that land where “taxes are eaten by politicians and bureaucrats like deep-fried snacks with their drinks”, a barren place that must necessarily be abandoned. Australia, meanwhile, holds a glow, but, at the end of the day, is “that Pacific continent pretending to be Atlantic.” Salvation is not an easy prospect; and it is made doubly complicated by a desire to find success — and to be seen at home as having found success. One foot has landed on foreign shores, MBA close at hand, while the other carries the muck of memories and expectations, aching loudly for freedom, while secretly devouring the emotional security that even pain can sometimes provide. Incompleteness is a current that runs through the entire book, an incompleteness as much a design of the author, as it is an enduring feature of the people whose stories populate her pages.
The one nagging detail that travels with the reader, however, is the limited pool from which Gonsalves draws her people. They are all Goan Catholics, with links to Bombay and Mangalore besides, and they seem to mix only with other Goan Catholics. It is, no doubt, a reflection of the author’s own roots, one she has expressed masterfully, but the absence of other Indian immigrants, except in partial cameos, limits what is writing capable of rising beyond specific peoples and communities. While racism and its negotiation by Indians is discussed with undramatic authority, there are no fully-formed white men and women who serve any larger purpose in the stories. So, where the tension of the Indian hostess who has choreographed the casual warmth with which she intends to receive her white guest is captured effortlessly, there is no engagement with the “other side” who too, in such a context, must ideally appear in all hues and colours.
In the end, though, the quest for the ideal story is an eternal one. As far as Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney is concerned, what we have is work of a very high order. It warms up, to me at any rate, from the third of its 16 stories, a gem in the collection, never becoming predictable, and sustaining sharpness as well as novelty as the pages turn one after another. It is a testament to Gonsalves’s great potential, one that has set the bar very high, and which she must now surpass in a future work, whether a novel or another beautiful collection.