What the writer discloses, the person often keeps close to the vest. During the hours I spent with him, at his home in that gated and guarded warren of mansions called Fairbanks Ranch and on the road in Texas, I was interested less in his bluster and more in his avoidance of autobiography. D'Souza is rarely asked about himself: usually, he's asked about his views on, say, the Reagan revolution or the conservative's place on campus. D'Souza is more comfortable steering queries about his life into explicating his convictions. A request to characterize yourself seems a bit taxing. "Perhaps, you could say," and he repeats "you could say" as though its pungency, like wine, needs to swish around in his mouth first, "you could say I am provocative as a writer, but I am certainly not confrontational in person when I'm debating." This admission is one of the few times I will hear him say "I am." As opposed to "I believe." And yet the statement characterizes him because his writing and speaking voices both define him in terms of what he does, not who he is. Who he is surfaces in his writing when, on rare occasion, he departs from the catechism of conservative values and tells us why he left India.
"If I had remained in India," he writes in What's So Great About America, "I would probably have lived my entire existence within a one-mile radius of where I was born. I would undoubtedly have married a woman of my identical religious, socioeconomic, and cultural background. I would almost certainly have become a medical doctor, an engineer, or a software programmer. I would have socialized within my ethnic community and had cordial relations, but few friends, outside that group. I would have a whole set of opinions that could be predicted in advance; indeed, they would not be very different from what my father believed, or his father before him. In sum, my destiny would to a large degree have been given to me."
"In America, by contrast, you get to write the script of your own life.... What to be, where to live, whom to love, whom to marry, what to believe, what religion to practice -- these are all decisions that Americans make for themselves."
Inside of three decades, D'Souza has made good on the immigrant promise, becoming, in his phrase, "the architect of his own destiny." For years he was incurious as to why he was able to make something of himself so readily here when others have not or, more commonly, have been reluctant to. Today, he's pondering it. "One immigrant said to me, 'I'm envious of you, because you really seem at home in America. I'm not at home here, but you are.' I'm sometimes hard-pressed to account for that."
OUT OF INDIA
D'Souza's family is from Goa, a port city in southern India, whose Hindu people were colonized by the Portuguese and converted to Catholicism. His father, who eventually worked for Johnson & Johnson, moved the family to Bombay, where Dinesh was born in 1961. Bicultural from birth, the D'Souza name is Portuguese, while Dinesh means "God of the sun." His schooling was Jesuit, he says. "The best schools in India are run by the Catholic Church. It's true of many of the old English colonies." While the Jesuit curriculum featured humanities and science, it was "memory-driven, very competitive" with national exams, "nothing classically liberal about it." As a child he heard about America only through his grandfather, who, with Dinesh on his knee, would recount the fights of Muhammad Ali. D'Souza recalls the provinciality of his Indian youth with fondness. Extended family was nearby; no one traveled or had aspirations beyond Bombay. "It gave me a sturdy, happy, healthy upbringing," if a sheltered one. "I hadn't thought about my place in the universe. I'd also never thought about socialism or capitalism, or whether the Soviet Union was any good." D'Souza's family showed little interest in politics: they were "loving people," "educated but essentially technically oriented."
In 1978, an exchange program, run by Rotary International, brought him to America and the outpost of Patagonia, Arizona. There, during a year with four families, he finished high school, though academically his senior year was "supereasy," equivalent to his eighth grade in India. In math, he says, "I was at the level of the teacher." A counselor, seeing D'Souza's potential, helped him apply to Dartmouth College. Was he already thinking about a career? Yes, according to the dictates of Indian culture: college men would go into the sciences or commerce, while women would choose the arts. Though D'Souza had an analytical bent toward writing, he still felt it would be his hobby, not his profession. He saw himself majoring in business or math, then, one day, going to graduate school at Oxford, and then returning to India to work at a middle-class job.
But Dartmouth changed everything, in part, because D'Souza was amazed by what he saw his first semester. He recalls that not only was the campus "pristine and luxurious," but it was also a place of "unbelievable tolerance, affluence, and opportunity," where the ideas of foreign students, like himself, "could be circulated. People would listen to what you had to say." But he was shocked at the condemnatory opinions other foreign students at Dartmouth displayed toward this country. His fellow foreigners groused that America was riddled with homophobia, racism, and sexism. " 'America is so bad,' they would complain. 'Americans are so ignorant.' " D'Souza says he was "unprepared for" just how strongly allied the white left-wing students and the foreign students were. And yet, as a newbie, he was still "too polite and nonjudgmental" to attack anyone and too naïve to grasp the political stratification on campus.
Suddenly, his calling to write was engaged: there was an opening on the campus newspaper, the Daily D. D'Souza volunteered, covering sports, speeches, parking, whatever. Meanwhile, and largely unknown to D'Souza, a political struggle for control of the paper's editorial slant had begun. When the forces of an "overwhelmingly liberal faculty and administration" won out, a few conservative mutineers started their own paper, the Dartmouth Review, in 1980. Its editor, Gregory Fossedal, began to write editorials promoting Ronald Reagan, who was at the time campaigning in the New Hampshire primary. Fossedal recruited D'Souza. But, D'Souza says, he was still politically naïve. He just wanted to keep writing. He lovingly recalls the "inky fingers" of production, the door-to-door deliveries the entire staff had to make.