Dilip D’Souza’s cross-country treks through the US leave readers with jet lag, says Sanjay Sipahimalani
ONE OF the problems besetting the travel writer must be that of how to organise 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: Allan 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’sRoadrunner is the absence of just such an organising 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 witnesses 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-ofthe- 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 organised, would have madeRoadrunner 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.
The Word Caravan
No longer a footnote, the Jaipur literary festival grows, tries different voices and spawns others, says Trisha Gupta
THE JAIPUR Literature Festival, whose fifth instalment runs from January 21 to 25, started as a three-day literary appendage to the Virasat Foundation’s Jaipur Heritage Festival in 2006. “There were just 16 authors reading then,” laughs Namita Gokhale, one of the Festival Directors. “We invited 18, but two didn’t show up.” By 2009, there were over 140 writers participating, and 12,000 in the audience, spread over five days and 50-odd parallel sessions. This year, there will be more than 150 writers, including such literary stars as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Hanif Kureishi, Geoff Dyer and Vikram Chandra.
Gokhale admits that some of those who’ve seen the festival grow are nostalgic for the initial phase when there was only one session at a time, held in the Durbar Hall of the charming Diggi Palace, with pigeons flying in and out. But that feeling of intimacy, of having stumbled upon a secret, came at the cost of being relatively unknown, and having very limited contact with the immediate surroundings. By its fourth year, 2009, the festival felt much less like a visiting satellite from some alien planet that had landed in Jaipur for a few days. According to the organisers, 30 percent of 2009 festival visitors were from abroad and 30 percent from Indian metropolises, but local attendees from Jaipur – from journalists and housewives to the poetry-reading government servant and surprisingly attentive hordes of school and college students – made up a whopping 40 percent.
While the festival is largely Anglophone, there is some attempt to represent India’s vibrant regional literary cultures, not just catering to Jaipur audiences with sessions in Hindi and Rajasthani but also bringing on, say, a Nalini Jamila, her fluid Malayalam sentences instantaneously rendered into English by K Satchidanandan and Paul Zacharia. “I think there was some suspicion in the beginning because bhasha writers are quick to feel slighted. And the playing field is not even, let us admit,” said Gokhale. “But I think now bhasha writers are enthusiastic about it. And international writers who come also feel that it’s the festival’s multivocal, multiphonic nature that gives it a unique flavour.”
But if someone like Tash Aw, Taiwan-born and London- based author of the acclaimed The Harmony Silk Factory, loves Jaipur, “because the majority of the public is Indian [unlike] other literary festivals in Asia, which seem tailored to expats”, the festival has its critics. While for Gokhale the fact that that “you can see these people offstage, so to speak – Vikram Seth looking for a chair, or Nandita Das queueing up for dinner”– underlines the festival’s “democratic surroundings”, there are those who think of Jaipur as another link in the cocktail circuit, “full of high-fliers”, tainted by the culture of celebrity that surrounds us.
ONE SUCH group of people has, in fact, initiated an alternative literary festival in Kerala this year which hopes to become “the obverse” of Jaipur. Being held for the first time on January 8 and 9, the Kochi Letters International Festival 2010 (LIFE) seeks to “raise book lovers from the level of consumers to that of participants in thinking”. Featuring talks by thinkers like Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik, cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek and a host of Kerala-based intellectuals, the non-fiction centred Kochi LIFE sees itself as a reaction to the “compulsory, compulsive media of today”, says organiser Sashi Kumar. With two such different festivals in the space of a month, the literary scene in India seems spoilt for choice.
The Year In Black And White
Samrat Chakrabarti tells you which books to look forward to in 2010
Buzz has it that this tale of the women’s sexual revolution, set in the 1970s, is Amis’ best book in years.
LUKA AND THE LAKE OF FIRE
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
His first children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories was written for his first son. This, the long-awaited sequel, has been written for his second.
THE GOOD MAN JESUS AND THE SCOUNDREL CHRIST
Author: Philip Pullman
The title is just the beginning. According to reports, the book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels.
THE HOUSE OF FEAR
Author: Ibn-E Safi
Agatha Christie once singled him out for praise and soon you could too. The Urdu crime fiction writer who once enjoyed a cult following in the 1960s will have several of his works translated into English.
BAD BOYS’ GUIDE TO THE GOOD INDIAN GIRL
Author: Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra
What is a ‘good girl’? Where are they found? A short fiction collection that borrows from fact and presents the travails of the subcontinental good girl who climbs down drainpipes on her way to womanhood.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN SCANDINAVISTAN
Author: Zac O’Yeah
Europe has been colonised by India. Its administration, in a questionable move, handed over to the Indian Administrative Service. Philip K Dick meets Manohar Kahaniyan in a noir novel set in a Swedish curry house. Enough said.
Author: Rajesh Devraj / Meren Imchen
Sudershan (Chimpanzee), a once B-movie star, now losing lustre, contemplates fickle fame and fortune in a graphic novel that scratches Bollywood’s underbelly.
FROM DONGRI TO DUBAI
Author: Husain Zaidi
From the Robin Hood-like Karim Lala to Dawood Ibrahim, Zaidi, of Black Friday fame, charts the murky depths of the Mumbai underworld.
Author: Vishwa Jyoti Ghosh
Graphic novel set during the Emergency. An important political event rendered in a medium made for poignant political art.
Author: Siddharth Chowdhury
A Bihari boy comes to study at Delhi University during the tumultuous days of the Mandal Commission and the fall of Ayodhya.
By Inder Sidhu
Actor and TV host
A book that means a lot to you?
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson — it changed my life completely. We all look for the “cheese” in life, in work, in relationships. The book has a very simple message, but it’s profound.
Your favourite book?
My mother’s book, Timepass, which I co-edited. It’s the story of her life in her own words. It has a great message. She says, “I am who I am, take it or leave it!” It’s still selling well today and has affected a lot of people’s lives.
How many books do you own?
Thousands! I used to come back from trips abroad absolutely laden with books for kids! I’ve always been a bookworm.
Your favourite genre?
I don’t have a favourite. I like books from all kinds of genres, as long as they’re entertaining and interesting, from writers like Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams to motivational and self-help books.
Your favourite character?
Pi, the little boy from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. The character is very entertaining and the book has great dramatic visuals.
A book you wished you had written and why?
I’d love to write another version of Chicken Soup for the Soul. I like all kinds of books that help open and shape your mind and change your perspective. That, or write children’s stories — I tell my kids all kinds of funny and quirky stories!
The last books you read?
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Another is Richard Branson’s Losing My Virginity — such a highly enjoyable read! You can see the spirit coming through his words.