Meet Monica Kamath, a Hindu Konkani, who is constantly on the lookout for any piece of information on her community in the annals of Indian history. She shares her fear of obscurity with our Bangalore-based interviewer Karuna, who herself knew little about this ethno-linguistic group.
Monica Kamath, 25, HR manager/freelance content writer, Bangalore
Interviewed By Karuna Chandwani
Why did you decide to give us an interview on culture and identity?
I feel my culture is a bit obscure. And considering the kind of diversity our country has, a lot of people are unaware about the Konkani-speaking community. At one level it’s great that the language has survived till date without a script, but you can’t be sure about the future. I’m not running a ‘save the tiger’ movement here but I don’t want to be reduced to a few dominant narratives available around me today. I feel bad that there won’t be knowledge about diversity for the existing generation and/or posterity.
How do you introduce yourself to someone?
My identity is like a bhelpuri. My mother tongue is Konkani, I’m a Hindu with a Christian name. Both my parents are Konkanis. I live in Bangalore while my hometown is Cochin. Konkanis are a close-knit community. I can draw parallels between Konkanis and Parsi or Jewish communities in India, or even Kashmiri Pandits for that matter. Because all three communities have a migration history. There are layers to our identities.
Would you like to share details about your ancestral history?
Konkani language is recognized with Goa usually, which has a high concentration of Christian population. But there is a tiny share of Hindu Konkanis, including my ancestors, who were settled in Goa centuries ago. Historically, we are supposed to be a migratory community. The migration is mainly attributed to the drying up of Sarasvati river. So, the interim settlement happened in Goa. During the Portuguese conquest, a small percentage of Konkani people fled the state because of the mass conversions that were happening. That’s why you’ll notice hamlets of Konkani settlements on the entire western coast, which is why it’s known as the Konkan Coast. A chunk of that settlement happened in Mangalore-Udupi area and probably the last vestige settled in Cochin. There is a timeline at Fort Kochi that mentions the ‘arrival of the Konkanis’ from Goa. I’ve found such snippets of documentation and created this personal narrative for myself. Whenever someone asks me, “Who are you? Where are you from?” I’m like, “If you have 30 minutes I’m ready to tell you about my background.” It opens this Pandora’s box.
How was it growing up in a Konkani household?
It was a normal childhood. But this ignorance extended to my family as well. They are okay with being categorized as just Bangaloreans or Malyalis (because of Cochin). Maybe it’s not as important to them as it is to me or they don’t want this jhanjhat. I’m a bit more detail-oriented. I will call crimson a crimson and not red.
I’m trying to understand why you feel so strongly about your cultural identity. Is it because a lot of explanation goes into a simple question of where are you from?
Yeah. I wish it was a lot easier, like a Punjabi or a Bengali. It’s laborious to just establish my identity. But I chose the longer route because I don’t want to be obscure. I will sit a person down and explain where I come from. It’s an opener for people who are quick to come to conclusions. I’m not trying to be right-wing here insisting on how crucial it is to know the roots of the Konkan culture.
Interestingly there is a paradox here; while my family is so particular about the rituals and traditions that we must follow owing to our position in the hierarchy, when I get out of my house, I realise I belong to a minority that nobody knows about.
What if you just say you’re a Konkani and leave it at that?
Nobody knows what it is. At least 80% of the people I’ve met didn’t. Many don’t even know that a language called Konkani exists in this country. And if they do, they confuse it with Tulu because it doesn’t have a script either. And I’m like, no, it’s completely different.
I come from another such migratory community and I was always surrounded by relatives and cousins growing up. As a kid I never knew any of the neighbours nor did I play with the kids in my galli because we were just too involved in ourselves as a joint family. So, the disadvantage of belonging to a close-knit group is that it could also isolate one from the rest of the world. Was that the case with you growing up?
I’ve never lived in a joint family. The closest that I’ve come to living in one is at my grandparents’ house in Cochin, when I’d visit them during summer vacations. My parents shifted and settled in Bangalore because of work. So, I’ve been brought up in a non-Konkani environment. Since both my parents were working professionals, I had a daycare nanny who was a Kannadiga. There’s a Tamilian family living in the house opposite to ours. I’ve grown up balancing four-five languages like any Bangalorean. I’ve had more exposure from other communities than my own.
Would you say the acceptance or awareness about Konkani-speaking people is more in Cochin?
The acceptance is everywhere. The awareness and understanding is much better in Cochin though. People acknowledge that we are not Malyalis.
You mentioned there’s no such fear within your family members. How do they react to your adamancy towards making people aware about your culture?
They were surprised but they’ve always encouraged me. Within the family I’m known as this girl who’s researching on our community (smiles). A professor from Mangalore played a huge role in flaring up this sense of belonging. He got in touch with me while he was doing a research on Konkan culture. We used to have long discussions about it. Being a Christian Konkani, he’d give me his perspective on things and I’d give mine from my side of things. Now I’m constantly on the lookout for anything that would tell me more about Konkanis.
The last question is not related to the interview topic, but we ask everyone we interview…
I think I know the question (laughs).
Love (both laugh).
Yes. What does love mean to you?
I think love is the basis of existence. All of us come out of love.