Road to nowhere

Road to nowhere

road runner — an indian quest in america Dilip D’Souza HarperCollins, 2009, pp 331,  Rs 399Road runner — An Indian Quest in America
Dilip D’Souza
HarperCollins, 2009, pp 331,
Rs 399

I’m not sure if these days they show the cartoon shorts featuring the Road Runner and Wile E Coyote on TV. I enjoyed watching the Road Runner zip along a meandering desert road at blistering speed sounding ‘Beep! Beep!’ while the stupidly innovative Coyote lay in wait with a TNT detonator. It was fun.

I was reminded of the cartoon series when I saw the picture of the Road Runner on Dilip D’Souza’s Roadrunner. The book is certainly a welcome addition to the catalogue on Indian travel writing about the United States. When we consider the increased penchant among Indians both for travelling and travel writing, that catalogue remains surprisingly short. Paradoxically, it may be the extensive familiarity and obsession with urban America that has led to this situation, this absence of a sense of wonderment which is so important for travel writing.

Dilip has been on the road alright. In his own words, “Through three American road trips over eighteen months, my family plotted my progress on large maps stuck on our dining room walls at home. I emailed them my route in careful detail; my son got on a stool every evening and marked it out in thick red ink.” “Driving, even for hours and days on end, I never fully comprehended how far I had gone. This red trail drove it home: on one of my trips, upwards of 7000 miles in a vast wiggly loop that stretched across four American time zones.” “I mean, on a plane covering that expanse, I might even have been jetlagged.”

For Dilip, who spent the 80s in the US, the impetus to write the book comes unexpectedly. On a train in Mumbai, he overhears oversimplified, judgmental and prejudiced comments about that country by two Time magazine reading types. He wonders about the way Indians perceive America and how Americans would react if they knew, and then decides that stereotypes need busting, whether the stereotypes are of US or India. And so the 30-odd short pieces in Roadrunner (I counted them, the chapters are not numbered) are about identifying and understanding the atypical, learning to see more of gray and less of black and white.

Busting stereotypes
For example, Dilip’s encounter with Harley enthusiasts in Sturgis, South Dakota. When he visits the town, he sees it geared up for the annual Harley bikers’ jamboree. If he had not tagged along with a group of bikers, the various biking paraphernalia on sale and the general milieu would have led him to believe that this is a place for young people. But this is a stereotype waiting to be busted. “Put the bikers back into the picture, and all this stuff was aimed at a sea of greying and pot-bellied people in black leather.” This is not all. In what must surely be a case of stereotypes imploding under their own weight, Dilip discovers that in addition to being middle-aged, a section of the Harley bikers are evangelists on wheels — ‘Bikers for Christ’ and ‘Christian Motorcyclists for America — Riding for the Son’!

Roadrunner is full of such random jottings about non-mainstream, non-urban America. While that is a good thing because it makes for some interesting reading, it would have been better but for a few shortcomings.

As the journalist Elisabeth Drew once said, “Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversations.” Sometimes Roadrunner lapses into that pitfall with the writing not exactly what one would call engrossing, becoming even lame at times. As though the Road Runner forgot how to zoom and started to hop about. It’s at such times you realise that travel writing has more to do with the writing, lesser to do with the travel.

When I read a travel book, I like to get a sense of where my author is going and where he was before that; somehow it makes me a participant in the author’s journey and accentuates the joy of visualising the people and places described. Especially if it is a vast territory like the US. Roadrunner is all over the place but going nowhere. True, the romance is in the journey and not the destination and all that. But if you’re reading 30 disjointed pieces, you begin to feel like an unhitched train car. Maybe Dilip ought to have used a miniature of that red ink streaked map in his book.

Samuel Johnson once quipped, “It may, I think, be justly observed, that few books disappoint their readers more than the narrations of travellers.” Considering he’s running with his legs weighted with such expectations, Roadrunner does alright. I would recommend it, especially to friends who’ve done a few road trips in the US.
    

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