Review: Looking for America...and finding Neverland

Last Updated: Wed, Oct 13, 2010 07:40 hrs

Title: Looking for America

Author: Avirook Sen

Publishers: Harper Collins

Pages: 280

Price: Rs 299 

​There are very few countries where the headline 'Obama wins race for Presidency' could have a valid converse. Avirook Sen visited one such country at one such time. 

His book Looking for America, which is ostensibly about the country, tells the story of "normal people leading normal lives in strange times" - when a black man was destined to enter the White House, when the American dream was disintegrating, as the foundations of the banking industry were trembling and the assembly lines of the Big Three of Detroit were grinding to a halt. 

Sen, whose journey traces a misshapen oval on the map, maintains that he didn't plan his stops by throwing darts at an atlas. His motivations ranged from his son asking him to visit Dinosaur, Colorado, (though he would hear of a triceratops in a backyard elsewhere) to a piece of America from the debris of 9/11 landing on his friend's terrace. 

These two bits of information set the tone for the journey - at times, the author seeks out people, egged on by very specific, sometimes idiosyncratic, ideas (all of which are rooted in journalistic curiosity), and at other times, he bumps into people with stories to share. 

From an African American 'Barbeque Nazi' in Texas to a university-educated black man in Stone Mountain (the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan), from a white drug-dealer in Atlanta to a seemingly dear-old-lady, who is thrilled when two youngsters drive back with a buck they shot dead, Sen finds a series of people who are incongruent with the stereotype. Not surprisingly, his adventures in the South culminate in a declaration that he is not religious, in the heart of the Bible Belt, and an observation that God solicits shamelessly, after a Borat-like encounter with an evangelist. 

Each of these interactions comes to life, and the play of ideas is orchestrated by a play on words. The morbid becomes touching, a bleak future stokes hope. Try this: 
'Don't be sad, man,' says my man, smiling from his wheelchair, his folded jeans, thighs downward, swinging ever so slightly in the light  autumn breeze and grazing the top of his footrest. There are no feet in it.  

The author goes on to startle the reader by comparing the legless man who hopes for change to drop into his disposable coffee cup to Barack Obama, who asks for $ 5.00 contributions, promising change in return. 

Whether he is describing the beauty of grassland or rather more unsavoury objects he comes across in a restroom, Sen paints a vivid picture. Which brings me to an arguable negative in the book - if painfully detailed toilet humour is not to your taste, you would be well-advised to skim over certain sections. Sadly, the thought struck me in hindsight (a word that I can no longer divorce from its anatomical connotations.) 

The narrative is laced with wit - Sen finds a Broadway show titled 'African Soul, American Heart' and kindly informs us that it isn't Obama's biography - and pithy parallels, such as Arthur Ashe vs Jimmy Connors and Obama vs The White Hope, but the author's literary dexterity ensures that the poignancy of a sign promising a Jackson 5 gig, decades after the five had fled town, hits the reader. 

While Sen is honest even when it isn't politically correct to be, he refrains from editorialising when he meets people who tell him, "When I call the bank and someone from your country answers and says 'Hi, Karen', I always let them know it is 'Mrs. Black' may come in, but only when I invite you." Instead, Sen reasons, 'This was probably good feedback for call centre training back home, where bumbling undergrads with little English were doing their best to appear warm and friendly.' 

Of course, this can be a travel writer's trap - the inclination to empathise with the storyteller. Often in the book, it is. That said, it's hard to resist when someone points to a microscope and says 'Look, there’s how I see things'. Bruce Chatwin, my personal favourite and arguably the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century, couldn't skirt the pitfall. And it is fair to present a viewpoint without making a judgment.   

While some may criticise the book for leaving New York out, I was relieved the author hadn't offered up an overripe chunk of the Big Apple in a book that has too wide a scope to study a microcosm.  

There are no Ground Zero interviews with a moderate cleric, bigoted priest, bereaved family member or anyone else whose take on 9/11 has been aired over the last decade. Instead, Sen speaks to the mayor of a former future hub, a chef who is a molecular gastronomy pioneer but cannot taste food, a one-eighth 'Indian' (Native American) resident of Malta, a schoolteacher who brings lunch along on the train after learning of the prices, a politico-turned-train-conductor, a man who lost friends, oh and his dad too, in war  and - the only 9/11 connection - a mousy Vice Principal from the school where Dubbya was reading out to children when the twin towers came crashing down. 

I would have liked to read more about the debate on outsourcing, which is likely to be a key point of discussion during Barack Obama's impending trip to India.  

In the nearly-two-years since Sen's journey was made, policy changes have affected the dynamics of the US-India relationship. This might have warranted a second trip to the States. Then again, that might be the germ of an idea for a second book. 

Looking for America is the debut book of journalist Avirook Sen, who has had a twenty-year career in media and has written for publications including India Today, New Scientist and Hindustan Times. He continues to write columns and editorials in various newspapers.

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