It’s funny. You read Looking for America by Avirook Sen. You read Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America by Dilip D’Souza. Both books are takes on the United States by Indian journalists who decided – separately – to try and get a grip on the country that has such a hold on the world. In both books, race is a big subject. The white / non-white divide seems strong.
Yet… “The only time through my four months in America that I had an aggressive racist taunt directed at me, was on the bus to Montgomery. It came from a black woman,” says Avirook Sen, in the chapter titled ‘Questions for Mama’. “There’d be occasional remarks made, but not to any great degree,” says Dilip D’Souza of his nearly six months touring the States.
You laugh. Because, you acknowledge, it is not possible to define every aspect of a whole country in a book. And Sen and D’Souza sound horrified when you ask if that was their intention when they decided to write on America. But it’s good to get some pointers anyway, about a country that interests us all. And it’s great to get these pointers from Indians because their perspective is ours. Because, let’s face it. When it comes to books on other countries, that’s not a perspective we’ve often had in the past.A desi point of view
"It’s not just the Indian perspective on the world that’s missing, but more broadly the non-Western perspective," says Sadanand Dhume, writer and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and author of My Friend the Fanatic – Travels with a Radical Islamist, a book of political observation about Indonesia where the traditional culturally inclusive Islam is giving way to a more orthodox one. "The international publishing industry is centred in America and Britain, and even today non-Westerners are more quickly accepted as interpreters of their own culture than of others’."
That’s about to change, if the books by Sen, D’Souza and Dhume are anything to go by. Though ‘interpreters of culture’ may be too strong a phrase, the fact remains that for people who enjoy travel books, it’s a relief to be able read some that have been written by Indians. "One of my favourite travel books ever is River Town by Peter Hessler – a book on China that really made me feel I could understand the country," says Radhika Raj, an advertising professional with a great interest in travel. "But even so, I had to filter what I read through two layers because I was an Indian reading a book on China written by an American. Whenever I read travel books by westerners, there is always a feeling of being a level away from what the writer has made of what she or he has observed; a sense that if the writer were Indian, I might be reading about a different kind of experience."
Such ‘different’ experiences come through in the books by Sen, D’Souza and Dhume. In My Friend the Fanatic, Dhume refers to himself as "brown and bearded" – something he had in common with many of the people he met while travelling through Indonesia. "At a practical level, I was able to travel to the places I did precisely because I was ‘brown and bearded,’" Dhume says. "My Indianness is central to the book. Elements of Indonesian history – particularly its long Hindu-Buddhist past – resonate with me because they evoke something from my own past. This is a book written for a global audience, but it’s not one that could have been written by anyone but an Indian."
Seek and you will find
There is an essential difference between Dhume’s book and the ones written by Sen and D’Souza. My Friend the Fanatic is what Dhume calls “a political travelogue”, focused wholly on the changes in Indonesia. Looking for America and Roadrunner, on the other hand, are books with bigger pictures of the country their writers travelled through; equal parts travel and commentary. “America is where a lot of our popular culture comes from,” says Sen. “Music, movies, books, TV shows, food – I wanted to know the country that provided us all that.” Travelling by bus and rail, talking to people he mostly met in passing, in Looking for America, Sen takes us from the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken to the kitchen of a chef who has lost his sense of taste; from Michael Jackson’s birthplace in Gary, Indiana, to Saginaw, a town so dead-end that it took the protagonist of the Simon and Garfunkel song America four days to hitchhikeout of there.
But Sen also tries to understand American attitudes to race and religion. One of the most effective chapters in the book quotes boxer Muhammad Ali’s powerful ‘Questions for Mama’, a response the champion had given to a question in a TV interview, and juxtaposes it with president Barack Obama’s ‘more perfect union’ speech in the run up to the 2008 elections. “Muhammad Ali’s ‘questions for mama’ is almost like poetry,” says Sen. “To think he came up with it on the spot!”
Sen approached America purely in the spirit of exploration. D’Souza was there to explore too, but he had another purpose – to filter his view of America through his view of India and vice versa. “Comparing the two countries would be a deadend exercise, but there is a value in holding up a mirror not just to them, but to us too,” says D’Souza. “I had always wanted to drive around the US anyway. I just called this work.”
In his road trips, D’Souza participated in a community garbage disposal programme that reminded him of Mahatma Gandhi; visited the world’s largest gathering of Harley Davidson enthusiasts and learned that youth is just a notion, and hiked up a mountain in formal clothes for high tea. “In some places I had set up interviews, but mostly I met the people I spoke to completely serendipitously,” says D’Souza. “I’m a writer. I always carry a pad in my shirt pocket because I’m looking for things to write about. I like to be conscious of what’s happening all the time.”
Looking for America
In 2002, Avirook Sen visited the United States for the first time. Gazing at Manhattan from a friend’s terrace in Brooklyn, he heard how a burnt fragment of an office memo had blown into that terrace the day after 9/11. As he speculated about the person who might have written that memo, the idea of writing a book on the US was born. The book came into being six years later when, in 2008, Sen boarded Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains and set off to explore the country. Looking for America is an idiosyncratic book. Big themes are addressed, such as race, religion and presidential elections. But Sen also takes you to Michael Jackson’s hometown, into the workplace of a barbecue Nazi and, well, into America.
Dilip D’Souza spent 10 years in the United States from the early ’80s to the early ’90s. Returning to India at a time when both liberalisation and religious fundamentalism were beginning to be taken for granted, he found that the rediscovery of his own country was coloured by his American experiences – his 10 years there had given him a perspective he might otherwise not have had. So when, on a road trip through Maharashtra, it occurred to him that America was a good place for road trips, and he’d like to do a book about the country, he thought he’d like to hold an Indian mirror up to the US, the way he’d held an American mirror to India. Roadrunner takes you through faith, patriotism, race, immigration and a town called Marfa that boasts an installation of Prada heels and handbags in the middle of nowhere.
My Friend the Fanatic
In October 2002, journalist Sadanand Dhume arrived in Bali as a reporter for The Far Eastern Economic Review and the Asian Wall Street Journal, after bombs had gone off at nightclubs, killing more than 200 people. Till then, Indonesia had been seen as a country filled with moderate Muslims and a secular culture where ancient Hindu and Buddhist customs were a way of life. After that night, the world’s perception of it changed. And Dhume wanted to explore that change. A little more than a year later, he quit his job, moved to Jakarta, teamed up with a self-confessed Muslim fundamentalist and travelled the entire country to see how radical Islam had changed the nation. Though this book could not have been written without the travel, My Friend the Fanatic is a book about politics more than anything else, not a travel book in the conventional sense.