What do we learn when one great democracy looks at another? Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal Democracy in America answered that question in the 1800s. Today, India is the world’s other great democracy, and maybe the answers are different.
Through stories large and small, this book shows us America as refracted through the eyes of an Indian who is critical but not intolerant, understanding but not starry-eyed. From gawking at wall murals by German World War II Pows in Taxas to getting to know the Bikers for Christ at the annual bike carnival in Sturgis, from charting the history of immigrant Icelanders to driving a fire truck in a quiet mountain town, D’souza travels American roads, discovering old cultures and new concerns in one of the most revered and reviled nations in the world today.
More important, he explores the lessons in that process, for India and for readers everywhere, as he searches for meaning and nuance in ideas like patriotism and being liberal, in a country’s sense of self.
Trained in computer science, with two decades of software under his belt, Dilip D’Souza eventually realized writing was his passion.
He has written two books, Branded by Law: Looking at India’s Denotified Tribes and The Narmada Dammed, a monograph of essays on patriotism, and has contributed to several anthologies. He has won a number of awards for his writing.
Of all things ... a trip to get rid of household waste in Winchester, Massachusetts, puts in mind Gandhi, and his focus on Indian villages. An effort to raise captive bison in Kentucky gets me thinking about the audacious things men do, and then about Alang in India’s Gujarat, where wiry workers break apart ships with bicep power and little else. And some members of a family died years before they were born. So say their gravestones in a tiny North Carolina cemetery, I swear.
America: thought-provoking, but sometimes kooky, and even in a world order that’s changing, on so many minds. Like two starched shirts I know of. For some years, I took the local train to downtown Mumbai every morning. These two men, friends, usually got on with me. One always carried the latest Time rolled in his fist. In too-loud voices, they would discuss nuggets from the magazine. And I would listen in wonder because their discussion would invariably lead them to spout inane one- liners about the US.
‘Bush or Kerry, what difference does it make? All their Presidents are Mafia types anyway!’
‘You know, the average American is just a dodo!’
‘The country is full of broken families; all the girls are loose and get pregnant in their teens. No family values at all.’
Imagine, even janitors earn megabucks and live like kings!’ (Was this said in sneaking admiration?)
I spent ten years in that country. It remains like a familiar second home, one I always delight in visiting. Sure it has warts, but where did the foolish stereotypes come from?
Perhaps I didn’t know it then, but I think the seed for this book was planted there, on those crowded morning commutes. What is it about the way Indians look at the US? How do Americans think Indians perceive them, and how do they react? Does it matter?
Well, it does matter. And oddly, I think so because of all that I’ve learned, and keep learning, about my own country.
After those years in the US, I returned to India in 1992 — to a country that was familiar like an old sock, yet was already different from the way I knew it, ten years earlier. In I 992, India was poised for the sweeping, often traumatic changes — political, economic, social — that would convulse the country through the I 990s and the first decade of the new century. And in 1992, 1 felt like a bone-dry sponge, yearning to learn all I could about my country again for the first time. That bare-bones desire — to absorb and consider anew — drives my writing, here and elsewhere.
Few things in my life have been quite as satisfying as finding out about India through my thirties and forties. In many ways, this is a perverse, frustrating country; yet for a writer, for this writer certainly, that perversity is itself its fascination, its great appeal. You could have been an Indian for half a century, yet you can always find one more stone to pick up under which lies one more thing about India you never heard of. One more rich vein to explore, to further flesh out a picture that nevertheless remains appetizingly, tantalizingly, maddeningly incomplete.
Sure, I don’t always like the picture. On 6 December 1992, a mob of militant Hindus tore down an ancient mosque in Ayodhya. That set off months of murderous violence across the country, especially in my own Mumbai, where hundreds died horribly, and it happened around me. One memory is particularly vivid:
From the train one afternoon, I saw a mob of men, carrying long knives that glinted in the sun, clearly intent on some serious mayhem.
I’ve always felt that something changed forever in my city, my country, over those weeks. Hatred and xenophobia became respectable; too many made the easy equation that being Indian meant being Hindu. And in 1999, we fought a war with Pakistan. Patriotism then was naked hatred of the enemy — which is a feature of all wars, of course — but for too many and by unfair extension, also a profound suspicion of Indian Muslims. That’s when I think I grew obsessed with what gets called nationalism and patriotism: reading and writing about it, travelling in search of it.
My years in the US influenced that journey in many ways. For the way I look at the world is coloured, willy-nilly, by my American experience. And I am grateful for that colour. I believe it brings perspectives to my writing about India that I may not otherwise have had. Which is why I wanted to write about the US.
I wanted to bring that same spirit of learning to a journey where I discover America anew as I discover India anew every day. Discover, via the perspective that my Indian experience and my years in writing give me; discover, for the lessons there are to learn; discover, for myself.
That’s the background, the context, in which this book will explore the US through Indian eyes. This Indian’s eyes. But still, why?
One reason is that stereotypes need busting. After all, the US is a vast, complex, baffling country that defies both stereotypes and complete understanding. (Say that about both countries, really.) Why reduce it to one-liners about the Mafia and teenage pregnancies? Why reduce India to one-liners about malnutrition and caste?
I mentioned nationalism in India: Actually, its prickly nature is one of the parallels I see between the countries. The way the Us considers itself, the way patriotism has evolved and plays out today: Is the US still the liberal, generous country I thought it was, through my youth? Or is American patriotism now grown wary and insular, coloured by the tragedy of 9/I I and wars in the Middle East, tinged with suspicion, even hatred? With each visit to the States, I sense increasing polarization, more divisive rhetoric, stone-hard opinions that leave ever less space for dialogue. (Though it will be fascinating to watch Barack Obama’s presidency unfold.) I have to wonder what that’ means for the country’s sense of identity, for its future. As I find myself wondering in India too, and for similar reasons. Was 9k/Il a watershed for the US as 6 December 1992 was for my own country?
In the 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, that seminal examination of a young country, was the report card that Americans could never have given themselves. So insightful was he, so uncannily able to capture the essential character of the American project, that his book became an enduring classic, even defining their country for Americans.
Yet this observant eye was, of course, a Frenchman’s. At the time, his country was the world’s other great democracy. It was natural for a Frenchman to write that book. But today India is the world’s largest democracy — flawed, full of lights, bristling with energy but oh yes, a democracy. So 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?
Questions like these ambled through my mind as I roamed the US for this book, I’m not sure I found complete answers, but join me in the quest, won’t you?
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