Techie-cum-author Dilip D'Souza on life in the U.S. and his latest book, Roadrunner.
Trained in computer science in the U.S., Dilip D' Souza took to writing after 20 years in software. He has written three books Branded by Law, The Narmada Dammed, Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America, a monograph of essays on patriotism, and has contributed to several anthologies. He has won several awards for his writing, including The Statesman Rural Reporting Prize, the Wolfson College (Cambridge University) Press Fellowship, and the Outlook/Picador prize. His latest, Roadrunner, was launched recently in Mumbai . Excerpts from an interview:
The U.S. is both admired and reviled. Do you think the critiques are fair?
Depends on who is doing the critiquing. Some are fair and balanced, some are not. Of course that could apply to any kind of critique. But I think the U.S. has done some horrendous things over the years (Chile in 1973, just one example), and needs criticism for those. I would urge that the criticism does not mask some of what the U.S. has done right too. Just one example: for all of its tough immigration rules, it still remains the country most open to immigrants in the world, and in fact is a country built on immigration.
I recently read an article that said most Americans know very little of the world.
Well, again that depends on which Americans you talk to. I know plenty who have travelled a lot, who know a lot about the world, and in fact some who know a lot even without having travelled much. But there are others who are not like that. Frankly, it's not too different from other countries. If I went to a village in Vidarbha, let's say — and remember 2/3rds of India still live in villages — how many of the folks I'd meet there would have travelled outside India and know about the world?
What was your biggest challenge as a student in the U.S. and more recently for Roadrunner?
As a student, I'd say the biggest challenge was the barriers in my own mind, the stereotypes I had about America when I first went. It took me a while before I started seeing my American friends as just other people, rather than impersonations of the caricature I had in my mind. It was when all these stereotypes got challenged and changed that I truly started feeling at home in the U.S. Because that's what home is — not a uniformly rosy or horrible place, but a bit of everything.
On my recent travels, perhaps the greatest challenge was the loneliness. I did most of those thousands of miles alone. While it is fun to go to interesting places and meet interesting people, it was often hard being alone. Someone special to share the moments with makes travel so much more interesting.
As a techie, how did you feel when you “made it” as a writer?
In a sense, the awards were a vindication of my belief that the writing was my career, my passion, and not software. It was good to see that there were people who appreciated what I wrote; that I could offer people something to think about. But in the end, I write not for the awards, but for two things: the chance to give people things to think about, and for myself. Those are intangibles, but if I think about it, they are what drive my writing.
Did you ever dream of being a writer?
Not that I can recall. I was reasonably good at it in school and college; one year, I was editor of our college festival magazine, and was pretty proud of what I wrote and what my team brought out. But while I enjoyed writing, it really never struck me that it could be a career. I envy guys who say they knew they wanted to write from their earliest days. I never had that clarity.
Would you say the Internet is reshaping the role of books today?
In some ways, yes. For one thing, the rise of blogs and instant publishing gives too many people the notion that whatever they write will be read. But beyond a point, that's simply not true. In the end, people still want good writing, and that nearly always means writing that has been edited and is better for it. But in other ways, no. For all the fuss about Facebook and Twitter and even blogs, it is still books that influence society most. Because you need the longer format to make an argument thoroughly, persuasively. Books might start appearing in electronic form, Kindle and iPad and so on. But I'm going to go out on a limb and assert that books are in no danger of disappearing. We'll always have them.