Enter Gopal, the hero of Anurag Mathur’s ‘The Inscrutable Americans’ - a god-fearing (and mother-fearing and grandmother-fearing) chap who gets a scholarship to study in a small university in Eversville and is travelling to the USA determined to eat vegetarian food (preferably cooked by Brahmins). And yes, he is hell bent on avoiding American women and other ‘unhealthy’ habits.
Mathur takes Gopal on one happy, sad, funny, cruel, eventful ride throughout the year when he is propositioned by pimps, celebrated in poetry, mugged by racists and grilled in chemistry class. Gopal's exaggerated Indian English, forever in the present continuous tense, might grate on the odd occasion but his native wit surely amuse his readers many a times. Randy himself is left marveling on how he manages to haggle in a supermarket and does his math.
Under the guidance of his (un)able aide and mentor Gopal begins to appreciate many things. He admires the flexible education system more than once and desperately misses home during Christmas break. While he unfailingly applies national hair oil on his scalp, he breaks some other taboos: he eats beef (unknowingly), gets drunk (and throws up), and loses his virginity (in spite of himself). He also makes friends, earns a diploma and learns to love the country that he discovers has much more to it than just free sex and limitless quantities of Coca Cola. And when he returns home to Jajau, Gopal leaves behind a few enlightened Americans, who learn from this bumbling yet intelligent ambassador that there is more to India than the Kamasutra and curry powder.
Let us give us credit where it is due, we get more than 3 channels these days and the washing machine and dishwasher is common to almost all households. The story set in times a decade prior to the ‘internet boom’ strikes a contrast between India and America. Two ‘Most sought after nations’ at a time in their own time. The reader has to appreciate that India has changed a lot since the described time (obviously as a dollar is no longer 13 rupees) but the crux of the story being ‘when a small town Indian is exposed to America’ remains pretty much the same even in current times. (That is a lot of ‘time’ put in there but the ‘awe’ factor remains, nonetheless.)
This book is not meant to compare the two nations. It is not meant to gratify either of them. Nor is it meant to give out any message as such. What it is supposed to do, I couldn’t properly put into words. What else do you get when you put a desi chap into ‘Amreeka’? Maybe we haven’t been exposed to many movies (as movies interest us more than books. More than 3 channels in India today, you see) of this genre. Take some of Jackie Chan’s movies for instance. A Chinese man put in America and he has no clue what to do sometimes.
The problem with such non-message oriented books is that the story becomes blatant and repetitive after a while. Since the story is not aimed at ‘saying something’ but just tries to expose the reader and familiarize him with the world he sees some part of the story as redundant. And no, that is not déjà vu.
I wouldn’t categorize this as ‘unputdownable’ because it doesn’t hold the reader’s full interest till the story culminates but it makes it up by its contemporaneity and pure comic simplicity. Gopal’s story is sure to find a listener every Indian who boards the plane to America with a head full of preconceptions and a heart full of hope.