The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 21, 2000

A visit recalled
By Darshan Singh Maini

DURING my several trips to the United States since the Fulbright Year at Harvard (1969-70), I couldn’t visit the Deep American South except in the fall of 1983 when I was invited by the Department of English, Louisiana State University in collaboration with the Henry James Review (with whose editorial board I had been associated since its inception) to deliver a couple of lectures. That visit with my wife remains, in some ways, a most memorable voyage of discovery in my American Calendar, and its reminiscences and reverberataions have not a little to do with my understanding of the spirit of America.

For, in a deeply disturbing way, the story of the South leading up to the Civil War of 1863 has affected the entire mindset of the succeeding generations, and though the South today is putatively integrated, ‘the North-South Divide’ remains in ingrained complex conditioning responses and ignites crises now and then.

It’s politics, mired by history and brutalised in the process, are till this day conservative elitist in essence, and we find residues of hauteur, isolationism and racial tyranny frequently erupting in that scarred land, as even in the American Congress, to remind on of the refractory nature of the Southern syndrome. That explains the obsessive character of the literature associated with it from Mark Twain to William Faulkner, among other writers, which brings me to my own initial brush with the southern reality, and a compulsive itch to relate it to the deeper rhythms and distempers within that God-tormented, Faulknerian country.

  Visiting those parts, steeped in slave memories of shame and guilt and miscegenation, lynching, torching and plundering, had thus quite a "ghoulish" aspect, but as it happens, not all the demonic dreams are spent even today if we remember the high tragedy of Martin Luther King’s life and its agonising ironies, or recall some Hollywood films, and other vestiges of Jim Crowism down South.

Thus, when after considering the schedule and the greenbacks in my purse, as also the places and ports of call enroute, I and my wife drew up a strenuous but rewrding itinerary, my dream of re-living a few moments of the Southern past was suddenly an exciting prospect. Already my empathetic imagination was at work. The next best thing was to purchase two international 15-day open Greyhound tickets, and leave the rest to our luck, ingenuiny and opportunity.

Believe me, there’s no better way of exploring America than they Greyhound coach, if you want your ears close to the sounds of peoples and places. No wonder, Walt Whitman, the poet who best transaltes the physical, numinous and nervous energies of his countrymen, called one of his great poems Song of the open road for no other symbol sums up so aptly the roving, freewheeling picaresque spirit of the American Adam.

It’s the American equivalent of the Hindu marga and moksha in the wider sense. Both the idea of El Dorado and of Shangrila and the far horizons, are subsumed in it. Thus, a safari on wheels through those vast stretches of land and wood and water that answer to the exotic but suggestive names of Virginia, Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana was truly a ramble through time and space, a food for the senses, and for the imagination of reconstruction and recovery.

And thus to our Greyhound odyssey. On a sweltering day in early September when New Yorkers are to be found loitering in different stages of undress — some young persons stripped to the barest essentials — we step into the cool luxury of an air-conditioned "Americruiser" that glides out of the mazes of Manhattan tunnels, bridges and traffic lights with the ease and grace of a ballerina. There are no hassles of any kind during checking in or checking out — orderly queues, baggage tags and receipts, punctual departures and arrivals. Odd as it may sound, there are no advance bookings; one has to take one’s chance on a first-come-first-serve basis. And believe it or not, the system works, and works beautifully and unfailingly, as we were to discover during our journey covering thousands of kilometres. So, once the anxiety about getting stranded somewhere is allayed, we know that no one really misses the bus in America, unless, of course, he’s entagled in a metaphor!

It’s time we turn to the well-groomed Greyhound drivers, whom the company prefers to call operators, presumably for respect and propriety. Nattily turned out in their light-blue shirts, striped ties, dark-blue trousers, peaked caps and monograms, most of them in their middle or late 40s, they strike one as fine examples of that middle-class America which is forever forming out of its own compulsions. Some of them in their gold-rimmed glasses, with balding pates and bulging middles, could easily pass for professors, corporate lawyers or bankers. The needle invariably stays steady, never rises past the stipulated figure of 90 km per hour, and before you wake up from the dream of driving, the next port of call is announced!

Our first stopver was Philadelphia — that historic city which meant so much in the making of the American story of freedom, and of the American Constitutiion. Undoubtedly, American ideals, values and perceptions were brought to their highest pitch for the first time on this soil.

Our host, an Indian associate professor of English, picks us up, gives us a quick spin of the major sights, then drives us to his home in one of the serene, spruce suburbs some 15 km away. For the next 30 hours or so, we savour the country air, saunter at will, visit a dazzling shopping mall whose size, opulence and decor leave us fairly enchanted, even though our own purchases do not go beyond a bauble or two.

Washington in mid-September, with its swarming tourists in gay coloured costumes, is a very pretty sight indeed. Again we go the usual rounds, and see some of the notable national monuments, institutions including the Capitol Hill and the White House, and art galleries that make this capital cit of spaces and noble edifices a unique experience in L’esprit American. The city spilling over into the suburbia of neighbouring states is an expanding metahor for the urges and essences that combine to make the American dream of town and country.

We are once again cruising southward in a Greyhound coach, toward Orlando, Florida, our next stopover. It’s a very long haul through several states, and we watch the drama of the South come Framlands and forests flash past, dissolving into tableaus of hamlets and towns. Men and women come and go, talking of bread and beans and beef, not of "Michelangelo."

Even the night journeys present no problems. The rest-rooms with their clean toilets, washbasins, towels and tissues and nearly as good as those on the planes. The queenly coach rolls on, hour after hour after hour, as though it were gliding on air.

Arriving in Orlando next morning, we hail a taxi to take us to International Drive where there is a unique conglomeration of hundreds of hotels and motels. We notice with interest that the taxi displays in big letters Singh’s Cabs, but the driver tells us that this Singh is from the West Indies.

We lose no time, and are soon on our way to what one Florida legislator termed "the sovereign state of Disney" where the dreamer and creator of Walt Disney World was given a free franchise to launch the biggest and the brightest show on earth. We are literally lost for a day and a morning in a fairyland of fun and frolic, of wonder and enchantment. After God’s creaton, Walt Disney’s isn’t to be dismissed lightly! A mortal couldn’t have done more.

Our Greyhound streaks into New Orleans as the morning sun lights up a vast stretch of the Mississippi River with its spread of cargo vessels, gay sailing boats and quaint schooners redolent of Spanish airs. Great fortunes, great partician houses, marble mausoleums, flowering boulevards — and also slaves and whores and searing memories. And out of all this agony and splendour came the sound of music — Jazz, Jazz, Jazz, all the way! New Orleans compels as few other American cities do, compels one to ponder the ironies of history and of fate.

We take a five-hour-tour, riding into the heart of the city and through its vast suburbs. The coach operator sings out the names of the famed Creole streets and plazzas, of cathedrals and colleges and university campuses, as we make our way toward the the picturesque French Quarter. But before we arrive there, we are called to attention in front of a stately white mansion. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the house Hollywood built for its magnum opus, Gone With the Wind, to house the restless spirit of its great heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett O’Hara — the name sets a whole train of images in motion, and the passionate drama of that Southern belle is revived for the once, amidst a tumult of wild thoughts and emotions. Then in a blaze of echoes we glide past one of the streetcars named desire, immortalised by Tennessee Williams, past the park commemorating one of the city’s greatest sons of yesteryear, Louis Armstrong, the King of Jazz.

The French Quarter is still the greatest draw in town. Here’s a bit of American soil which is forever Old France. you have been inside an antebellum world, and you have seen something of its vanished glory.

Baton Rouge — Louisiana’s capital — is just two hours away, and the Greyhound discharges us there, timed to the minute. We are picked up by a university colleague, and lodged in an elegant, presidential suite in the University Faculty Club. The evening suddenly turns cold and windy, defying the law of nature and the weather forecast, and it gives my wife the excuse to pull out her pashmina shawl which she has been dragging around all these days. Next morning when I deliver a scheduled lecture before the faculty and the graduate students, it gives me a sense of pleasure and pride to find two Indian women scholars among the audience. How vast is the imperium of literature and letters, I muse; how potent its sway! Fancy, a handicapped Chandigarh girl out there meeting bravely "the assault of reality," to use a Jamesian phrase. Which finally brings me to that noted James critic and scholar, Daniel Mark Forgel, and his handsome spouse, and a delightful evening at their suburban home with other Indian guests and the affable De Caros from the literature department — all enveloped now in a glow of wine, wit and victuals.

The return journey to New York is along a different route for the most part. And when, 30 hours later, New York lights beckon us into it psychedelic world, we are well past the threshold of surprise. We have arrived.

We had, in sum an experience rich in so many ways — in memories and reminiscences, in thoughts of warm fellowships, of remembered acts of kindness, enough to keep us in good cheer years after... .