Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Worlds Within Worlds

By Supriya Savkoor

Just back from a weekend trip that was unexpectedly unique and  one I’m certain to remember for years to come.

My aunt, a self-published author visiting the States from India, invited me to join her at a conference in New Jersey this past weekend. She tempted me by saying she would be teaching a creative writing workshop for kids as well as speaking on an author panel to promote her book. Both events cinched the deal—I got myself registered, and we coordinated where to meet and where to stay.

But the weekend did not get off to a great start. It was a scorcher, first of all. I started my drive from Northern Virginia in 112-degree weather. What should have been a 3-hour drive turned into a more than 6-hour long haul. Along the way, the occasional broken-down car lined the shoulder of the highway. The temperature dropped steadily till after dark, my A/C finally started working. By the time the outside temp reached 92, it started to feel chilly inside the car. I was sleepy, trying to think about which of my previous vacations I could write about for today’s blog. Meanwhile, cars with clever vanity plates such as M3RLOT, BKEEPNG, HIP1 CHIK, and U R LVD, whizzed past me, making me wonder instead about the inner lives of their passengers and the more interesting stories they could tell rather than those of my old vacations.

I reached Edison late Friday night, and by Saturday morning, I found myself at the opening ceremony of the convention. You probably guessed I was attending a writers’ conference, but no. It was a conference dedicated to all things Konkani—Konkani being the linguistic and cultural group from which I hail, and which I’ve written about in this space often. Some 1,800 attendees registered, flying in from nearly every continent. The organizers billed it as the largest gathering of Konkanis outside India. I didn’t think they could surprise me, but the event was so beautifully organized, it left me, and countless others, in awe. In addition to amazing entertainment and delicious food, the convention was filled with presentations and workshops led by noted Konkani luminaries—film directors, actors, authors, philanthropists, musicians, even a famous Top Chef, who judged a terrific recipe contest. (I must get those fusion recipes for tamarind-braised ribs with kale, avocado smoothies, and jackfruit kebabs.) Another contest, Konkanis Got Talent, was filled with some really impressive talent, some of whom I feel certain to hear more about in the years to come.

Then there were the dozens and dozens of instances of running into friends and family I hadn’t seen in eons, in some cases up to 25 or 30 years. I even ran into a woman with whom I’d had a chance meeting on a train in India in the late ‘80s. (Definitely a story for another day!) There were so many such incidents, in fact, that the weekend left me in awe about … well, so many things. The power of culture and community, of course. The passage of time. The magic of coincidence. Different moments of my life remembered and appreciated. History, my own, and that of this group of diverse people from the world over.

The event’s chief guest was someone I hadn’t heard of before, but who brought the crowd to their feet with his inspiring opening speech. You can read about T.V. Mohandas Pai here, but in addition to all the other amazing things you might learn about him, consider this: He’s a top executive who voluntarily donates 40 percent of his salary to charity. What good is money if you can’t use it to help others, right? Filled me with pride.

I can’t quite remember the number he cited of how many Konkanis there are, something like 2.2 million or maybe it was 2.6 million. Either way, as he rightly noted, it’s hardly a blip when you consider the population of India as a whole is 1.2 billion. And again, it kind of got me thinking about those cars I’d passed on the drive up, wondering about the lives of people I haven’t met, all the untold stories waiting to unfold. Most folks I meet, even Indians, haven’t heard of Konkani, and yet here’s this rich, complex community, represented in nearly every country, every religion, every profession. Not exactly a hidden community but certainly a subculture of sorts. 

And yet someone passing the convention center might think what was going on inside was just another Indian festival in the New Jersey suburbs, right? Not hardly.


  1. I couldn't read this without thinking about what a natural storyteller you are, Supriya. Now you just have to turn some of those imagined lives of strangers in cars into stories. And next time you go to one of these conferences, can you take me along? Sounds like fun.

  2. OK. I want to hear the story about the lady and the train! Thanks for sharing! :)