Sounds, Smells and Voices
There are not many Indian authors who had the courage and confidence to write about the United States of American despite the fact that many young and not-so-young men, and young and not-so-young women in post-Independent India -- especially from the 1950s and 1960s onwards -- have literally grown up loving American popular fiction, popular music and popular cinema (Hollywood). When satellite television came in the 1990s, the America-hungry folk in our cities just grabbed every bit of the jaded soap operas like "The Bold and The Beautiful" and "Santa Barbara". In the last few years, a much younger generation got hooked on to "Baywatch", "Friends" and even "Ally McBeal". It was in many ways a passive absorption of everything American. This did not however find expression in books, essays, stories from the Indian side. From Bharati Mukherjee to Jhumpa Lahiri, the stories were mostly about Indians settled over there. The only exception but in the non-fiction genre was Allan Sealy's "From Yukon to Yucatan", a travelogue from the northernmost point of the north American landmass to its southernmost tip. Sealy set out to break the silence and barrier of an Indian writing knowingly about the land, but he admitted that the book did not sell in India of in the US. Sealy's however was a literary undertaking and perhaps he did not desire it to be a popular work.
Dilip D'Souza's attempt to write on the US is in the popular, journalistic mode is both interesting and refreshing. "Roadrunner" is indeed a travelogue but an intimate one, where places, sounds, smells, people, voices come alive. D'Souza's writing does not have a serious and even tone. He is in turn enthusiastic, naive, banal, yes banal, sentimental, serious, critical, provocative. It can be said that he would have been able to achieve lyrical peaks which he does at some points if he was afraid to touch the bathetic lows. The book starts off an irritating note, of an outsider who has too much of knowledge of an insider and who brazenly exhibits it as well. But the reader will have to persist through these irritating moments before he or she reaches the finer and even finest moments of the narrative.
He travels to smaller towns, disaster spots, big cities as well and collects the voices, sets down his impressions. What he has to say are not always well thought out. He is aiming more at the natural flow and not allowing himself to become serious or pompous. Throughout the journey across the length and breadth of the country he does not lose sight of the fact that he is an Indian and that he is looking at Americans through Indian eyes in spite of his deep familiarity with the country because he had lived there for 10 years between 1982 and 1992 before returning to India. He admits that his perception of India has been coloured by his American sojourn. He does not however judge America from the Indian viewpoint. He tries to see Americans as naturally as it is possible for an Indian who knows his America well can do. He succeeds because he is affectionate and critical, does not impose other value criteria and he does not pretend that he is an American though he could very well pass off for one.
There are two points in the book where D'Souza shows his mastery through sheer honesty. The first is when he meets his longtime pen-friend -- she came to visit him in India -- when he moves to America for his Master's degree. By this time she has got converted to Christianity, and D'Souza who confesses to his agnosticism finds it difficult to understand. More so, her blind and simplistic faith. He notes that she later went back to Judaism. Their friendship ended and he counts it as a "melancholy episode" in his life. He however gets into introspective mode and asks himself as to why he, who was proud of being open-minded, could not accept the religious faith of his friend. He writes: "Here I was, smugly proud that I was myself open-minded about everything, liberal in the best sense. Agnostic, but self-assured about my respect for religion. Yet face-to-face for the first time with a friend so profoundly religious -- yes, even fanatically religious, so what? -- my open-mindedness failed me." (p 78).
The other point is where he describes the place where planes are put away after they are decommissioned in the chapter aptly titled "Flight". Here is one of the many thoughtful, heartfelt passages from this chapter: "Mojave is one answer to a question every flight enthusiast eventually wonders about: what happens to old planes? Sure, Zeros and P-51 Mustangs get shot down in wars. But what about the ones that survive? What about other military aircraft that simply grow obsolete? What about civilian Caravelles and Dakotas, Avros and 707s, yesteryear workhorses of airlines the world over? Where do they go when past their sell-by date? … At least some of them end up in the American Southwest, which is dotted with several aircraft graveyards." (p 230).
This book should be given as a present to all the American and British journalists living in New Delhi, for long and short periods, and who write about India with such amazing ignorance, indelicate arrogance and with the affectation of an enlightened benefactor who is moved by the benighted land and its people. D'Souza shows what it is to write about another land and other people, however well you know them. He shows what it is to respect the other person while at the same time not appropriating the position of an authoritative outsider/insider. He avoids all the follies that Americans and the English commit when they write on India.
D'Souza succeeds because he lets himself go, dares to be foolish and melodramatic but he is always careful to observe the people and the places where he is a foreigner with respect and affection. This is not something that can be achieved through a plan. What it needs is emotional and intellectual honesty and humility. There is plenty of it in D'Souza and it spills over into what he writes.
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is with the DNA, New Delhi. He also blogs at (orsareoirtvkigsoit,cin).