27 December 2011

Roadrunner by Dilip D'Souza

Bikes, oysters, jazz, and much more
Some years ago, Dilip D’Souza took time off and drove across America. This book is about his travels – how and where he went, what he did there, and who he met. But it is also about his thoughts while he was travelling, and Dilip is not an ordinary travel writer. He is much better informed than many; his views and opinions are generally more profound. I enjoyed this book and learnt a lot from it too. Each chapter is of a different length and tells of an experience on the journey. Some themes are repeated. The book also compares attitudes and ways of living in India and America. Check this, on the very first page:
An effort to raise captive bison in Kentucky gets me thinking about the audacious things men do, and then about Alang in India’s Gujarat, where wiry workers break apart ships with bicep power and little else. And some members of a family died years before they were born. So say their gravestones in a tiny North Carolina cemetry, I swear.
We in India tend to have a certain stereotyped exposure to American life and culture, and this book gives a wider and more realistic view, showing that country to be much more culturally diverse than the movies and talk shows portray.
I read Roadrunner aloud to Gladys who is friends with Dilip’s parents and knew him as a child. And this is not really a book to be read aloud: it had too many words I had never heard said aloud before so had no idea how they were pronounced. There were too many concepts (names of cars and musicians for instance) that neither Gladys nor I had heard of. And the large number of parenthetical asides made for clumsy reading. So when (for example) Dilip visits the Casey Jones museum in Jackson, Tennessee, I found myself stuttering and lisping over
Tucked behind, yes, is another dreary American landscape: the recreated ‘Older Towne’ style village. You know: ‘Old Country Store’ with attendants in ‘authentic period costumes’, store selling Elvis knick-knacks, ‘Southern Magnolia Dolls’, ‘Gifts Etc’, and all their signs painted in the heavily serif font that practically screams ‘Wild West’. Above it all, ‘1978 Old Town’, thankfully minus the ‘e’s. Just decades old, this place, and it even admits to being so. Why does it pretend it is so much older?
Besides, why is this museum to a brave hero part of this faux-historical tromp l’œil kitsch anyway?
I ask that question because in India I sometimes ask its opposite. Why do we remember so many heroes from our history – so much of our history itself – mournfully?
Casey Jones, incidentally, was that legendary locomotive engineer who ordered his fireman to jump and save himself but gave his own life as he tried – unsuccessfully – to prevent a collision.
Dilip’s memories of his own long-ago culture shock when he first went to America as a student years before he made this trip are poignant but written in a way to make you smile. Like this writer, I came to love Route 66. The story I marvelled at most was Fifth Wife, in which Dilip wanders along a deserted North Carolina beach with Pete, whose last four wives were Filipinas:
About now, I’m wondering if the years add up: seventeen here, fourteen there, ‘a few’ with that other woman, one and half for Susie’s papers. I’m also a little dizzy with the wives, the drama, the wives, the two-timing, the trips to the Philippines that result in wives. Like a bizarre fairy tale.
I thoroughly enjoyed every session until the book got over, and was glad to have the opportunity to savour each chapter. This is not a book to rush through but one to return to repeatedly, over time. And as a travel book – it’s not really meant for tourists. If you do happen to take it along with you to read on a visit to the USA, definitely allocate special reading time too.

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