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Margaret Mascarenhas. Skin.

New Delhi. Penguin. 2001. 257 pages. Rs250. ISBN 0-14-100465-7

MARGARET MASCARENHAS was born in America of a Goan father and a Caucasian mother. Pagan, the protagonist of Skin, was born in America of a Goan father, Francisco, and a Caucasian mother, Katie--so she believes. The action begins in Pale Alto. A man harasses her in a bar; she takes his gun and, although she has never handled a gun before, nearly shoots him. Mysterious things lie in her. She has been dreaming of a woman named Saudade. She tells her lover, Xico, that the problem is her inability as a cross-cultural hybrid to figure out, in America, where she belongs. Then her Goan grandmother, Dona Gabriela, has a stroke, so she leaves for Goa, telling Xico that there is a word in Portuguese for which there was no English equivalent: "Yearning, Nostalgia, Bitter-sweetness--all at once. The word is Saudade."

In Goa, the family history narrated by her aunt Livia sounds too smooth, so she seeks out the old servant of African descent, Esperanca, for the real story.

Francisco and Katie had died in a plane crash on their way to Goa to bring back a young, baptized Pagan. It turns out that her real parents were Francisco's brother Leandro and Esperanca's daughter, Saudade, who had accompanied Livia to Paris. Seduced by Leandro, she gave birth to twins, Alma and Maria. Alma died. Pagan, back in America, receives a letter from Saudade, whom she had met in India as Sister Marie Magdalene. She had become a nun in France and gone to Africa, leaving after her leg was blown off by a land mine. In Paris, she had attended a presentation by Francisco in which he proposed that the double-helix mitochondria, passed down through the mother, "is the invisible thread that links human beings not only to the first home [sic] sapiens but also to our future beings."

The family patriarch, Dom Bernardo, made his money through the slave trade between Angola and Brazil. With slave labor he built huge mansions, and he kept an Angolan slave, Nzinga-Nganga (granddaughter of the Angolan prophetess Dona Beatrice, who greatly admired Queen Nzinga), whom he violated. Dom Bernardo became impotent, so his wife seduced a Spanish priest to get pregnant. Dona Gabriela could become independent because fair skin opened doors in a colonial/caste/skin-conscious India, and it would do so for her granddaughter; but skin closes doors, too. To end nightmares, Pagan must embrace all in her: African, European, Saraswat Brahmin, and fisherman.

Whitewashing family history means obliterating a twin. Pagan's skill with the gun came from an ancestor, Alma. Once she knows that home is everywhere, she loses fear of flying, although as a cat person, she will never be comfortable in the sky, in contrast to Saudade, whose totem is the kingfisher. Pagan's twin children have a father, named after an ancient ruin in Mexico, whose mother was Lebanese and father Brazilian.

Pagan's closest friend in school, Yvonne Lafayette, an African American, has become a novelist, poet, and anthropologist. She said in a memoir--Saudade writes--that her alienation from classmates fearing skin contamination was mitigated by a girl of part Indian origin. The "hybrid" can make life-giving connections and choices--even of ancestors. While her incapacitated Goan grandfather communicated only by moving his eyebrows, her American grandfather danced with her.

Fact and fiction are twinned. The former speaks to mind, the latter to imagination and subconscious. A brilliant first novel that gets under the skin.
Peter Nazareth
University of Iowa
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Author:Nazareth, Peter
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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