America Through Indian Eyes

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Looking for AmericaSen’s book is actually a Simon and Garfunkel song. ‘I’ve gone to look for America/Laughing on the bus/
Playing games with the faces’. Or perhaps it may be fairer to say that Avirook Sen’s book starts from a Simon & Garfunkel song. With some money to spend he took off on a bus to look for America and covered the country from Michael Jackson’s hometown, Gary Indiana to Saginaw a place so far away and so deadbeat that it took Simon and Garfunkel’s protagonist four days to hitchhike from. It’s a sweep that covers Kentucky Fried Chicken and a chef who lost his taste buds to cancer but who continues to compose – he calls it compose – recipes.

Not that the book began with a song. It actually began with a story of the ashes of a memo blown from the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Six years after he heard the story in Brooklyn, Sen set out on his second trip through America, talking to people and in a sense ‘playing games with faces’. Along the way he tried to understand American attitudes towards race, religion and life in general, especially in the context of a nation confronting the prospect of a black man as President.

In a way it was attempt to get to the heart of a country that dominates the world with its great American dream, racial divide and all. “The only time through my four months in America that I had an aggressive racist taunt directed at me, was on the bus to Montgomery. It came from a black woman,” Sen wrote in his chapter Questions for Mama, a title that owes its existence to Muhammed Ali and he went on to discuss the success of Obama’s campaign speech.

Apart from the implications of a electing a black President, the book was an attempt to see America from a totally Indian perspective since, after all, so many Indians have migrated to the States in search of a better way of life. Sen describes them along the way, a boarding house owner who doesn’t speak English or Hindi but sweeps the boardwalk, or another man who gives him an ‘Indian price’ for a room. Occasionally he wonders why these people ever left India in the first place. Though he does point out that a demand for green cards, which are actually pink, obsesses Indians and Americans alike – though the green card the Americans he meets want is one that allows them to grow marijuana legally.

There are odder stories than that of the pot dealer – like the one about the radioactive frogs kept down by a net to prevent them contaminating people. Or the ‘Injun’ irritated at being called one, since that is another form of racism, who jerks his head noncommittally when he meets an actual Indian – in this case Sen.

The book is smoothly written and full of tongue in cheek comments– for example the Jaguar car logo is fairly similar to the Greyhound bus logo, though the products are, of course, miles apart. And, with his journalist’s unerring eye, Sen seems to pick out the most interesting people to talk to, those who might seem to be clichés of fiction if they were real human beings.

In the end America is far too huge to be covered by a single wandering story, but that was never Sen’s intention. He set out in search of America and was content to record what he found, warts and all. For an Indian reader the thrill lies in the fact that an Indian is writing it all because it makes for a deeper sense of understanding and involvement. A feeling that the jokes are shared between friends. The Campbell’s soup can revised into the book title for the cover actually sums it up very well – America canned with Indian humour.

Looking for America by Avirook Sen
Published by Harper Collins India, Sep 2010

Buy book online
Buy book online
Looking for America
by Avirook Sen

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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