An American Odyssey
Discovering the audacity of imagination in the other great democracy
Back in 1835, French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville published his Democracy in America. Today, it remains a seminal work and is required studying in many US universities. The impact of American-style democracy, he wrote, would resonate around the world. Despite the erosion of its global profile and influence, America remains the touchstone for the definition of true democracy, civil liberties and personal freedom. Dilip D'Souza experienced much of that as a software engineer in the US from 1984 to 1992 when he returned to India and a writing career. He still works as a software consultant which takes him back to a country he was influenced by. After 9/11, America changed and this, his literary debut, part travelogue, part reportage, attempts to define that change, and how Americans judge their country and their place in a divisive world His attempt is also to view American through the eyes of an Indian now living in another kind of democracy, flawed but durable.
There are many parallels, including 26/11, but D'Souza confines himself largely to his American experience, only occasionally using a comparative compass, to try and make sense of post-9/11 America and its impact on Americans in general. He doesn't always succeed but it is not an easy task. He finds, predictably, bigotry and tolerance, hatred and love, tragedy and triumph in equal measure. Where he scores is that he hires a car to touch base with towns and places few people have heard of. Like Greenwood near Selma, the origin of the Blues and the civil rights movement, where he arrives a a charismatic Barack Obama is chasing an impossible dream: to become the first Black President of America. This is Alabama where white racists savagely subdued black civil rights marchers. Today, they hand out cards saying "Bama for Obama".
That capacity for radical change is what he finds across the areas he travels, some negative but most of it positive and elevating. There are obscure rural towns where he discovers both beauty and tragedy: the decline of the rural economy means more young men are enlisting in the army and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan where the death rate for rural youth is 60 per cent higher than the urban rate. What are especially revelatory are his conversations with ordinary small-town Americans wherever he travels and his conclusion that a majority of Americans are fundamentally worried about the future of their country, largely a George Bush legacy.
It is during his travels through the rural backwaters that he discovers the essence of the American spirit: audacity of imagination, the ability to turn vague ideas into reality and the sense of community, dialogue and mutual respect. Much of this audacity is to do with a shared religion and shared purpose, in marked contrast, as D'Souza points out, to the narrow-minded, self-serving bigotry of politicians like the Thackerays and their hate-filled Marathi Manoos agenda.
Defining America today is an impossibility, so polarised is its society about a huge range of issues, from healthcare and religion to Iraq and Afghanistan. In that context, this is an effort worth applauding. America is still the world's only superpower and any attempt to get under its collective skin is worth the read, more so when it's from an Indian perspective.