Friday, January 8, 2010

Jet Lag

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka


One of the problems besetting the travel writer must be that of how to organize his or her material, of how to make all those scribbled notes cohere to form a manuscript that holds together from first to last. In many cases, the nature of the voyage itself provides the necessary spine: I. Alan Sealy’s 1995 From Yukon to Yucatan, for instance, was the record of a journey that followed the route of the first Native Americans, from the snowy wastes of Alaska down to the bulk of the continent and ending in Mexico. Then again, there’s the simple, stirring manifesto of William Least-Heat Moon: “I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”

What strikes one overwhelmingly about the bulk of Dilip D’Souza’s Roadrunner is the absence of just such an organizing principle. This is the record of road trips across the United States over a period of 18 months – many undertaken probably during the decade that D’Souza was living and working in that country as a software professional, in the 80s and 90s. The questions that he asks himself during these travels are: “What does the United States look like, through an Indian's eyes? How do Americans see their country, their place in the world? How does patriotism, the idea of a nation, resonate in the two countries? How does a citizen consider her country?”

These large and over-reaching queries, then, could have been the axis of the book; instead, we get what reads like an unexpurgated record of D’Souza’s travels, in Mississippi, Virginia, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas and many more locations, including – naturally – the legendary Route 66. Along the way, he witness one of Obama’s campaign speeches, frequents blues bars looking for the spirit of Robert Johnson and walks around Ground Zero in New York City.

Evidently, then, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill wide-eyed tourist’s account: D’Souza does seek out and spend time travelling the back roads and frequenting smaller towns. And to be sure, some of the connections that the author muses on are relevant and interesting, such as the death of an American soldier in Iraq contrasted with those of jawans in Kargil; relief efforts in the wake of the Katrina and Orissa cyclones; war memorials in Shiloh and near the Indo-Pak border; and shades of bigotry, be they in Mumbai or Texas. Another important point he makes – especially when contrasted with India -- relates to the sheer amount of access that Americans have to a range of facilities, be they scientific or sports-related, access that translates into achievement over the years.

Unfortunately, these are almost drowned out by other accounts that read like dressed-up diary entries, such as those of driving a fire truck, flying in a biplane or fresh-off-the-boat tales of his time in university. Such incidents and more, narrated in a breezy style in short chapters -- often with a jittery, quickened pace to many of the recollections -- steer the book away from its central purpose, which is a pity.

Of course, what makes a travel book memorable are the people more than the places. D’Souza gives us a fair share of such characters and his interactions with them: for example, Don, who paints Boeings for a living and succeeds in overcoming his family’s racist prejudices; Carl, a committed ‘biker for Christ’; the pen friend who drifts away to become a born-again Christian; and the frankly bizarre tale of Pete and his succession of wives.

Buried within this overstuffed travelogue, then, are nuggets that, had they been selected and organized, would have made Roadrunner a much more compelling book. As it is, however, it’s a grab-bag of recollections which, like any long road trip itself, consists of the interesting, the inconsequential and the inane.

No comments: