One of the things that “really embarrasses” Pico Iyer is how little he has “seen” of his ancestral land, India. He’s never been to places like Goa and Kerala. Spending his first night in Kolkata, where the 56-year-old author of a dozen acclaimed travel books and biographies came to attend the Kolkata Literary Meet, Iyer spoke about what keeps him moving from place to place or people to people. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You’ve spoken about someone being of brown skin Indian origin, with an English tongue, brought up in California, schooled in England, and living in Japan and America. Is rootedness inimical to travel writing?
Rootedness is essential to living. I actually feel very rooted having lived in this tiny part of Japan for the past 25 years in a small two-room flat. I have no bicycle or car and I’m always very much there. And for the last 22 years, I have been staying in a monastery in California for the rest of the time. I think travelling is only as useful as the rootedness that underlines it. You can only travel and write about it if you are rooted. In my house, I’m known as the one who rarely moves because I don’t change my habits; I don’t change my clothes very often. I’m rooted to a fault and it is more essential to my life than travel, which is a diversion almost.
If one can generalize some of your writing, you do seem to take a fond view of cultures where there are strong family values and deep attachments. Is that coming from your Indian blood, or an Eastern way of looking at things?
Eastern is a good way of putting it and nobody’s asked me this before. You are absolutely right. In the last 25 years, I have moved back and forth between California and Japan, and California is the last word in rootlessness and the absence of family. Japan, like India, is deeply rooted to traditions and does seem to be a saner way of handling the world. You are right. Maybe it’s my Indian genes or my English upbringing, for England is fairly rooted. Or maybe it comes of seeing a lot of people lost in this desert (California), a society without any history and having repudiated its foundations at large.
You’ve gone on record declaring ‘The Lady and the Monk’ to be your favourite book. The Japanese lady we know is your wife for 25 years now; she wanted to be in California when you met her and you wanted to be in Japan. Given a chance, how will you rewrite the book?
Hmm… I have sometimes entertained the thought of a sequel 25 years on. But I envy the person who wrote that book then because of the freshness and excitement of discovery when I first met my wife and Japan. But considering that early thrill of discovery, I’ll do a less good job if I wrote it now. The longer you see anyone or anywhere, the more you find how much you don’t know. When I first went to Japan, I was writing hundreds of pages. Now I can barely manage that. Also, now my wife has seen California quite well and seen through some of her early illusions.
Did your fascination for the monastic life push you to write ‘The Open Road’, the biography of the Dalai Lama?
It might have been the other way round. I first got to meet the Dalai Lama when I was 17, so from an early age I was listening to him and aware of him the way some people weren’t in the 1970s. But in some ways what is powerful about him is not that he is just leading a monastic life, but is a monk in the middle of a very busy, political world. I don’t think he is connected to my interest in monasticism, but he certainly shed light on it.
Your last two books on the Dalai Lama and Graham Greene (‘The Man Within My Head’) are biographical. Is that not a departure from the travel writing you are normally associated with?
Most readers would consider it as a departure, but I don’t so much. When I was writing about places, my interest wasn’t so much in the place. Each location was a gateway for digging out a certain kind of question. The same applied with people. In my head, whether you are reading places or people they are means to some larger end. There is actually quite a bit of travel in these two books as well. But those who’ve enjoyed travelling vicariously through my other books, might find it harder to do so.
Being the author of ‘Falling Off the Map’, are you worried about writing about lonely, unexposed places and harming them in the long run through the exposure?
More and more and case by case if I find a beach in a beautiful island, I would usually describe my second-best beach. I have noticed that the more isolated a country, the more its hunger for contact with the outside world. So when I go to Burma, Tibet or Cuba, if you ask the people there if they’ll like more or fewer tourists, they’ll always say more. I feel there’s a responsibility to encourage tourists to go there. There’ll be a cultural loss, but a human gain. But some are charming because of their seclusion and I try to be sensitive to that as well.
So does Pico Iyer have a secret list of places in his head which he hasn’t shared with readers?
A bit, yes. The question to myself always is what do the people there want. For example, the monastery that I go to in California, I’d always preserved its identity for I didn’t want people going there with the wrong motivation. Now the monastery has fallen on hard economic times and wants more people to come. So, now when I write about it, I also include the website.
You’ve written about that country, but how happy or disappointed were you when Bhutan started to open up to the rest of the world?
Ah, that makes me think. Hmm…not so disappointed because even when I was there in 1989, and because it was so sealed off, Bhutan had more video stores than any country I had ever seen. There seems to be something in human nature that hungers for those things. If Bhutan so wants, it isn’t for us to protect them. It is a strong culture, they’ll survive or get changed. But it’s a culture’s own responsibility after a point. It’s funny, when I went to Bhutan, it was very pristine and quiet, and I almost wished there was more life and activity.
Characters often occupy central positions in your travel essays. For readers it might not be easy to replicate your experiences. So does one read your travel writing for its literary qualities?
When I write about a character, I assume that he is fairly representative of the place. If I meet a bar girl in Thailand, I think many readers will meet some variation of the same character.
Does cultural homogeneity across countries bother you?
Interestingly, no. There’s another kind of invisible inner development. Each culture has their own strength and it’s only right if they can learn from the other. But I don’t worry. For instance, you’ll know where you are by going to a McDonalds in Delhi’s Connaught Circus, or in Japan or California. Each culture translates change to its own context.