Pico Iyer Posts

Journey Towards Selfhood

Over a decade ago I did a regular column for Business World. It was on the business of publishing. Here is the original url.


The Man Within My Head is Pico Iyer’s part-tribute to his “adopted” literary parent, Graham Greene, but also part-travelogue and part counter-biography. The title also echoes Greene’s The Man Within. Iyer initially wrote 3000 pages over eight years to finally reduce it to the 256 pages that were published. It is very clear that this is not a memoir. It is an exploration of ideas that are at the core of Greene’s writings, with a significant one being that of the “burden of displacement”. For Iyer, Greene strikes a chord on many levels. But at the core of it lies the fact that they both seem to share a fascination and a preoccupation with the individual, the sense of displacement in the world of migrants. How do you write about them? How do you live their life? How do you develop a cold detachment and yet experience something so acutely sensitively that it will be transmitted and resonate strongly in the literature written, whether it is an essay or a novel. Beyond these basic literary explorations, Iyer does wonder if it “was only through another that I could begin to get at myself?”

For him Greene could never be a fantasy figure but someone who would also help shed some light on his relationship with his real father. The dad who otherwise remained a distant figure, an academic and a highly respected theosophist, yet who flew half way across the world (from California to England) to meet an asthmatic Pico, after the wheezing son had made an emergency call or who left an emotional message on his son’s phone, after reading Pico’s essay on Greene “Sleeping with the Enemy”, published in Time magazine. It was the last time that Iyer ever heard his father, since he soon thereafter succumbed to complications due to pneumonia. But what distressed him even more was that “it was a shocking thing, “to hear his father sob, especially someone who was famous for his fluency and authority to lose all words”. 

Faith And Fortitude
Greene’s tussle with Catholicism is legendary. Much has been said and written about it. For Pico Iyer, it was the travels with his old school friend, Louis, who had discovered religion that much of Greene’s point of view on religion made sense. “I began to understand how one could be transported-and left in the cold-by the spiritual surrender of another. God, if He exists, has to be something larger, more complex and mysterious than just a headmaster reading rules. Sometimes you know He exists, as with a love, only when He’s very far away and you’re shouting out your rage at Him.” This is probably what prompted Pico Iyer to write in his Time essay that “Greene’s special grace-his curse-was to see ‘the folly and frailty of everyone around him.’ It’s never external devils that undo us, I suggested, but rather the ones that rise up in ourselves and those people who have the power to awaken them within us. Greene was ‘never a truer Christian,’ I concluded, ‘than when forgiving his un-Christian enemies.” But Greene was apparently reluctant, almost ashamed, to be seen being kind; it was only at his memorial service that Muriel Spark revealed that he had sent her a little money every month so that she could go on writing-accompanied by some bottles of red wine, so she wouldn’t feel like a charity case.

Shadow Of The Alter Ego
Pico Iyer is so obviously haunted and possessed by the notion of Greene (but he “never wanted to meet Graham Greene, I often told myself”). To get into the skin of another writer, live their life, but make it your own is astounding. To understand the choices the senior writer made, many times via your own experiences and epiphanic moments is not always easy to write about, although Pico Iyer makes it seem so effortless. At a time when memoirs and creative non-fiction writing is fashionable, to write a memoir that is part-travel part-litcrit part-tribute and part-self-exploratory, is quite a feat. There is no denying the huge influence Graham Greene has had upon Pico Iyer as a writer and an individual. He also shares a trait with Greene, “If you have a dangerous curiosity about the world, or if you’re a writer of sorts, trained to collect observations, you become in such situations, shameless. “There is a splinter of ice,” Greene wrote in his memoir, ‘in the heart of a writer,’ and he needs that sense of cool remove to do his job, as any diagnostician does.” For both the writers, “travel was most a way to see more clearly the questions and shadows it was easy to look past at home”. In a recent interview with Charles Rose, Iyer says that “eight years were spent on this book and yet, I could spend my life doing it. The way you have with a close friend.”

The cover design of the American edition of the book is striking. It has two photographs — the top one is of Greene and the lower one of Pico with his father. The careful arrangement of the book, title and cover and of course the content, shows not only the care with which Pico Iyer has put in thought and effort in to his latest book, but also how very important it is to him to understand, figuratively speaking, “both his fathers”, if you will. The Man Within my Head is a treasure. It is worth buying and savouring.

15 Jan 2021

Book Post 39: 9 – 22 June 2019

Book Post 39 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

25 June 2019

Salil Tripathi, “Detours: Songs of the Open Road”

Detours( Noted London-based Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s third book, Detours, is a collection of his column/essays on travel writing. This book is meant to be savoured. I was able to read one, maximum two, essays at a time. There was so much to absorb and appreciate in each essay in terms of the rich cultural experiences, the noises, colour, smells, details about the landscape, socio-political characteristics of the places he visits at that particular time with some history deftly blended in. Every single element seems to have his attention for detail. For instance, each chapter heading is carefully selected, it is appropriate for what follows in the essay but also resonates with the reader at many levels. It is rare to find such craftsmanship in a book today. Salil Tripathi has been a man of letters for some decades giving him immense practice in relying upon words to share, comment, dissect and analyse an experience but he does so without ever being dull. So reading Detours is infinitely pleasurable since not for a second does one miss the lack of photographs, sketches or any other form of illustration to support the travelogue. Just focus on the man and his words. This is armchair tourism at its finest!

I am posting an extract from the introduction reproduced with permission from the publishers.) 

As I started working on the essays, I looked back at the great travel writing I had read—Mark Twain, Eric Newby, Salil TripathiPaul Theroux, Ian Buruma, Pico Iyer, and William Dalrymple are among the writers through whose words I began to look at the world differently. I had also read many entertaining accounts, of an American or British writer abroad—like S J Perelman or George Mikes—and enjoyed the tragicomedy that followed. But getting off the beaten track and travelling on roads not taken to reach quieter places seemed so much more enticing. I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes—not as if it was an empire-striking-back, for that would be too presumptuous: how can anyone born in India claim to speak on behalf of a billion people? Rather, mine would be an attempt to look at the world through a sensibility that had been shaped by India and later tinged by other cultures.

I hadn’t left India until 1975 when I was still thirteen, on a tour organised by my school to Nepal. In 1979 I spent a few weeks in Scotland on a student exchange programme. In 1983 I went to the United States to study and returned home in 1986. I moved abroad in 1991, when I left for Singapore, and then in 1999, for England. Each journey affected in some way how I saw the world. My work—as a correspondent first, and later, as a researcher/advocate for human rights organisations—has taken me to fifty-five countries (including India). I’ve learned something new from each visit; I’ve made lasting friendships in many cities and towns around the world. It is impossible to write down each experience. This book attempts to reveal the world I have seen.

The book is divided into three parts: War & After, Words & Images, and Loss & Remembrance. The first section, War & After, deals with places that have been deeply affected by armed conflict or have had human rights challenges—Bogotá, Jakarta, Berlin, Yangon, Mostar, Phnom Penh, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Singapore, Lagos, and Istanbul. In the next section, Words & Images, I write about places that I have understood better because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid: Bombay (now Mumbai), Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Nairobi and Naivasha, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, Granada, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, Kyoto, Srimongol and Shilaidaha, Shanghai, and New York. The third section, Loss & Remembrance, is the most personal; it is, in a sense, about Karuna Sirkar, my wife who died in 2006. I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits; or the places where I went with my sons Udayan and Ameya after her passing, as the three of us tried to pick ourselves up to understand the meaning of our shattering loss: Ludlow and Proctersville, Collioure, Geneva, Stockholm, Venice, Beachy Head, Ålesund and Oslo, and San Francisco.

Salil Tripathi Detours: Songs of the Open Road Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., 2016. Hb. pp. 380. Rs. 695 

16 Feb 2016

Literati – “The library as social experience” ( 16 August 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below. 

Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.

My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.


“You either see it or you don’t” was an eccentric American Dennis Severs’ mantra,who converted his Georgian home in London into a time capsule with pieces collected from the 17th century till Edwardian times. Brian Selznick’s absolutely ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ forthcoming book, The Marvels, is heavily inspired by Dennis Severs’ imaginative lifestyle. To my mind, this mantra aptly marks the rapid disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores and at the same time provides a possible solution for their survival.

In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.

For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.

Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.

In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.

Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.

There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.

These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”

Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.

15 August 2015

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