LAUNCH Avirook Sen's book Looking for America is a travel book with a difference
T he launch of this book couldn't have been timed more perfectly. Even as news of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to India and the Democrats' defeat at the mid-term Congressional elections fills our TV channels and newspapers, Looking for America by veteran journalist Avirook Sen takes us back to another time when Obama's name was on everybody's lips; the run-up to the Presidential elections in mid-2008.
This is a travel book with a difference. It makes stops at places you wouldn't expect — such as the tiny town of Dinosaur, Colorado or Saginaw, Michigan (you might remember it from Simon and Garfunkel's ‘America'). And it tells the stories of everyone from a wheelchair-bound beggar in Chicago (whose catchphrase is “Don't be sad, man”) to the ‘Barbeque Nazi' of Texas.
“If you're what we call ‘convent-educated' in India, then you're exposed to the books, music, and movies of English-speaking countries, and have certain pop-culture references embedded in you. I used these as pegs,” said Sen, in conversation with Mukund Padmanabhan, senior associate editor of The Hindu at the Summit, Taj Mount Road. “Malta, Montana may not seem familiar until I tell you that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had their greatest heist there.”
For choosing some other places, he used a more random method. “My son and I threw darts at a huge map of America, and went where they landed,” he said with a grin.
This eccentrically-plotted five-month journey through America, on Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains, offers a different view of the country and its people. “Travel writing is a window to understanding a culture, but is also a socio-political window to a time — in this case, what America was thinking during the run-up to the elections,” said Mukund.
The book talks about hope and change, about race and racism, about the war in Iraq and of course, about Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin. And the question naturally arises — how different would it be if it had been written in the current political climate? “The mood when I was travelling then was pretty much opposite to what it is now. Today, it would reflect that different mood. It wouldn't be this book,” said Sen, who has written for India Today and Hindustan Times, and was with TV channel NewsX.
But his reasons for wanting to write this book would remain unchanged. “Whether it's selling batter-fried chicken or going to war, anything America does today affects us, matters to us,” he said, when challenged by an audience member on why he bothered to write about America at all. He might even write a sequel, or head to another country instead. “Some people have suggested I do a ‘Looking For…' series of travel books, it's an idea I'm considering,” he said, speaking after the launch. You could say that Sen, after over two decades in journalism, is figuring out the route he wants to take in his journey as a full-time writer. And it looks like his stops will be as unexpected as those in Looking for America. “I've started writing a book in a completely different genre, actually, a detective novel,” he said with a smile.