Dilip D'Souza tells BAGESHREE S. that travelling with an open mind is the best way to get rid of cobwebs inside our heads
The Indian subcontinent has been an endless source of exotica for travel writers of all times – from the colonial to the present when the remotest corner of the world is just a Google search away. Those of us who are feeling a bit exhausted by being the constant target of this gaze may feel enthused by the very idea behind Dilip D'Sousa's "Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America".
Not that Dilip started his travel writing project with any agenda of "reversing the gaze", to borrow an esoteric phrase from post-colonial literary criticism. "I didn't think of it like that when I was travelling there at least. Having lived in America for more than 10 years, I felt the need to understand better what has become my second home," says Dilip. "But I guess it could be read like that," he adds after a pause.
Through a series of stories about people and places from across the United States, the book offers a view of the vast country that is not inspired by awe, and yet is not dismissive. These stories are sometimes funny (check out the chapters "Opening Lines" and "Fifth Wife"), sometimes poignant and sometimes even insipid. The computer engineer-turned-writer never forgets his own identity as an Indian, as vignettes from back home form constant points of reference, even at the risk of sounding self-conscious at times.
Were people from the first world prickly and reluctant to talk to a man from the third world who has the audacity to venture writing about them? Far from it, says Dilip. They were indeed "charmed by the idea." They were by and large welcoming and friendly, even when they held views diametrically opposed to his own. As Dilip observes in the course of his journey in Montana, "Holding opinions is easy. What's difficult is to understand is that others hold other opinions, and that eventually you have to make an effort to find common ground."
In fact, Dilip believes that travelling with an open mind is one way of blowing away many of our pre-conceived notions about the world beyond the little wells in which we live. "Take for instance the notion about American women being ‘loose' as they say. As a student in the US, I always wondered where all the loose women that everyone is talking about really were!"
To understand another country and its people is also a way of reviewing our attitudes towards ourselves, believes Dilip. "We have a twisted view of patriotism, embodied in hatred for Pakistan or China." Patriotism is really a simple thing: "Look out for your neighbour who is in trouble." But it is not easy to speak about these things without sounding preachy and didactic, admits Dilip. "It is an idea that can be too heavy handed... I hope my book puts it across in an understated way."
Even as his travelogue is released, Dilip already has many more ideas up his sleeve. A trip across India with the road as a metaphor…. Or may be a book on the way we react to disasters… When he visited one of the villages in Tamil Nadu after tsunami, he saw a strange sight that has stuck in his head: a mammoth pile of old clothes donated by people from all over the country dumped next to a school building, on which children were playing merrily. "We seem to believe that a disaster is a good time to get rid of our old and torn clothes!" laughs Dilip.
Forget about people in another hemisphere, do we even know what our next door neighbours need or don't need?