Soon after moving from Kolkata to Ahmedabad as a cub journalist, I met my editor with a dozen story ideas. He heard me out patiently and said, “You’re new to the city. Everything looks like a story.”
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Wiser words had never been spoken but, fortunately, no one said them to Dilip D’Souza. Otherwise Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America may have never materialized. As fortunate, of course, is the fact that D’Souza is no newbie reporter: He brings to this book 10 years’ experience of living, studying and working in the US, the credibility of two non-fiction titles and, most important, an inquisitive intelligence that connects the dots with as much relish as a precocious child in search of the complete picture.
The enthusiasm is necessary, because the Roadrunner template is simple: Hit the American highways, meet the American people, find the Indian parallel and there you have it, a compilation of 36 essays that traverse the breadth of the US. Steering clear of run-of-the-mill parachute journalism but not quite going the regular travelogue way, Roadrunner is perhaps best read as a highly individual account of a country and its people and everything in between, from politics and pedagogy to garbage disposal and the Grateful Dead.
Parallels: D’Souza spends a lot of time in Texas (top) AFP; he likens Trisha Yearwood’s music to Hindi film music. Bryan Bedder / Getty
If there’s an underlying thread, it is the writer’s self-confessed preoccupation with nationalism and patriotism, both loaded lodestars in India and the US in an era of changing definitions and evolving identities. D’Souza subjects both the world’s greatest democracies to hard questions without, thankfully, giving in to either awestruck hero worship or scathing criticism. Rather, he maintains a tone of positive inquiry even on subjects that—forget lending themselves to easy answers— actually throw up more questions than he started out with.
In the best essays, both the build-up of the case and D’Souza’s analysis are organic and, like most good ideas, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that obvious. Consider Access, my favourite, a longish rumination on the boundaries men draw—or don’t. Starting with a stray antelope on the road outside a barbed wire fence, D’Souza wanders off into the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory, where he joins in a volunteer-led evening of stargazing. Later that night, he joins yet another amateur astronomer in his search for new planets.
D’Souza writes: “I know of groups of amateur astronomers in India. But I wonder if they’d have the ready access that these men do, to telescopes and facilities such as these. Yet here at McDonald, it’s something they take for granted. Two buddies can spend all night scouring the heavens through a powerful university telescope. A team of ordinary citizens can put together a project proposal and apply to use a major scientific facility’s finest equipment to take it forward.”
It doesn’t stop there: D’Souza takes the argument forward to sports, correlating access to sporting facilities to the number of world-class athletes in either country, before returning to the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Narayangaon, Pune. GMRT, too, conducts programmes for the public—one day of the year. In view of the “tremendous response” from the public, in 2009, it was held over two days.
“McDonald Observatory,” D’Souza writes, “… is a first-rate institution because it welcomes ordinary folks too… For me, this must be the ‘prime activity’ of a scientific facility, especially one that’s publicly funded… My feeling is, this is how citizens develop ownership in their country and its institutions.”
It’s a recurring theme through the collection: the stake ordinary people have in their country, and what it means to their ideas of nationhood. Elsewhere, there are parallels between the Partition and the American Civil War, Hindi film music and country singer Trisha Yearwood’s lyrics, a soldier killed in the Iraq war and another killed in Kargil. Without reducing the ideas into an us-versus-them (or US-versus-India) debate, D’Souza examines inherent traditions and contradictions in both societies, focusing on thorny issues of racism, religion, regionalism with a light, yet sure, touch.
That said, Roadrunner perhaps needs to be dipped into one essay at a time. The single narrator’s point of view can get oppressive at times; it also assumes a degree of comfort with the writer’s own leftist-liberal leanings. Read in one go, D’Souza can appear to be in love with his own voice, spelling out arguments to the last letter where some conclusions could perhaps have been left to the engaged reader.
Unless you’re his clone, don’t expect to replicate the experiences and takeaways of Roadrunner. But D’Souza can certainly enrich the average Indian’s understanding of the enigma that America continues to be for many of us, despite the superficial familiarity with its symbols.
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