Aama in America: Pilgrimage of the Heart
ISBN 0 385 47417 2
Broughton Coburn’s Aama in America is the tantalising follow-up to Nepali Aama (1982), his lyrical text-and-photo portrait of the woman from Syangja, Vishnu Maya Gurung. Aama in America is the chronicle of octogenarian Vishnu Maya’s unlikely pilgrimage to the United States. In addition to being a portrait of the United States—as seen through Vishnu Maya’s displaced but perceptive eye—the book is also the story of the author’s relationship with Vishnu Maya (who is his dharma mother), and with his natural mother whose death left him with troubled, unresolved emotions, and with his girlfriend, to whom he is not sure he wants to commit. The book has a large and wide-ranging premise which Coburn tries to resolve, sometimes erratically but mostly engagingly, over a journey that starts in Syangja and goes through the Tokyo airport lounge on to Seattle, Washington, California, Maine, Montana, Washington DC, New York and back to Nepal.
The most luminous parts of Aama in America come from the observations made by Vishnu Maya, whose cultural references are so far removed from those of the country she is visiting that her pronouncements on American cultural artifacts and behaviour are deconstructively incoherent and, at times, visionary. In particular, her encounters with the mundane aspects of American life such as public toilets, safety belts and ice cream abound with wit.
In a grocery store for the first time, Vishnu Maya exclaims, “Mero baajey… look this bazaar, I can’t believe it—all the food is lined up, one kind of meat in this line, another kind in that line, fish set out over there. You would think it would all spoil before people had a chance to eat it.” Once, as the author drives by some sheep on a country road, she says, “Boy, [a small question of idiom here], those sheep are moving fast—no, wait, we’re moving fast.” It is precisely this disorientation which gives way to her backdoor insights about the United States: at one point, the drab homogeneity of the American highway and the similarity of every Chevron gas station leads Vishnu Maya to believe that Coburn and his girlfriend have been driving her around in circles.
Coburn is sensitive in following the logic of Vishnu Maya’s observations. At every seashore she searches for Malaysia, which she has been told about by a Gorkha soldier. She cannot believe that there are no Gorkha soldiers to be met in the country she supposedly calls “Amrita”, especially after she meets one quite by chance. She is disdainful of the American custom—or at least oversight—of having toilets on top of kitchens. Her visit to American sacred sites like a Catholic church, the Pacific Ocean, or a meteorite exhibit in New York, capture vivid encounters between ardent, unquestioning Nepali-style worship and the starry-eyed new-age spiritualism, or the United States’ boundless profanity. It is especially heartening to read about Vishnu Maya observing, analyzing and passing confident judgement on a land that has intimidated many lesser immigrants. As in Nepali Ama, Coburn portrays Vishnu Maya as a person of rare self-possession. Her response to the United States is like a summons to Nepalis to be confident in ourselves, and in the cultural references we operate in, when confronting seemingly overpowering foreign ways.
Equally charming are snippets of American reactions to Vishnu Maya, who seems to have travelled throughout in velvet blouse, patuka and lungi set off by a coral necklace and medallion-shaped earrings of gold. At the slot machines in Las Vegas, a man recognises her as Mother Teresa. This isolation of many Americans, which leads to a particularly American brand of uninformed but enthusiastic friendliness, is familiar to any Nepali who has been there and tried to explain where he or she comes from. One child is inspired by his encounter with Vishnu Maya to ask what it is like to die, followed by, “Has Aama ever died before?” Another child exclaims, “She lives just like the Flintstones!”
Situations which provide the most dramatic possibility, such as Vishnu Maya’s visit to Disneyland or to the casinos of Las Vegas, are, not surprisingly, more flat and cumbersome. Perhaps the contrasts are simply too overwhelming to portray, for the moral gravity of the juxtaposition of Vishnu Maya and Mickey Mouse—when the two meet, or even when they are worlds apart—cannot be easily expressed with grace. As such, the book might not have lost much had the author refrained from writing about these sections of the journey, and kept the book’s premise smaller, more intimate. The reader in search of insight should look to the more low-key but epiphanic segments of the book, such as Vishnu Maya’s triumphant, quite logical rejection of the authenticity of whales, or her reaction to large-scale mechanised farming.
The resolution of personal issues regarding the author’s mother and girlfriend takes over at the end of Aama in America, which keeps Coburn from ending on a broad philosophical note about the crisis of spirit in the United States, or about the spiritual resilience of Nepalis. In choosing to settle the issues raised by the book only within the realm of his personal experience, Coburn leaves the reader wanting, but not receiving, a forceful conclusion about the way things are or ought to be in one of the world’s most spiritually impoverished countries, the United States, and one of the world’s most materially impoverished countries, Nepal. This omission, and occasionally strained writing, are the weak points of this otherwise well-conceived book.
Thapa is author of Mustang Shot in Fragments (Himal Books, 1992). She is currently working on her first novel.