This interview appears today in Mint.
In the two decades since the publication of his first book Video Night In Kathmandu Pico Iyer has produced a body of work so influential that for most people he is the first name that comes to mind when they think of travel writing. Born in England to parents from India, brought up in California, educated at Oxford and Harvard, and now for many years a resident of Japan, Iyer personifies the vast revolution in the self-image of much of humanity in the last fifty years. Increasingly our cultural allegiances are multiple, the reach and frequency of our journeys wider and longer, our relationship to the word “home” drastically different. To understand the place of the new self within this new globalism many thousands of readers have turned to Iyer. Iyer’s new book The Open Road, a biography of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, appeared this summer. In this interview he talks about the book, about travel writing, about the writers he loves, and about Indians and travel.
Your new book on the Dalai Lama has many insights on religion, politics, globalism, and on the balancing act of upholding tradition while embracing change. Am I correct in my understanding that these are as much the themes of your own work as they are of the Dalai Lama’s life?
One major theme of the book is projection—the way in which we all create the Dalai Lama that we need or want—and I am sure that I am as guilty of that as any other. So inevitably, I see him in relation to certain themes of cross-cultural fascination, of exile and home and globalism, that have always been close to my interests (while trying, I hope, to acknowledge, at many points, that he is infinitely richer and larger than my tiny notions of him). And in approaching a figure on whom so much has been written and said, my only justification for attempting such a project was to bring what I could from my background, and interest in literature, comparative religions and globalism, to see what they might light up in him that more serious and informed scholars of Tibet, of Buddhism, or of monasticism, hadn’t done already. But yes, I can’t pretend that I’m giving the reader anything more than my limited and, no doubt, distorted vision of the man, try though I might to cut through my own projections. My one talisman was that the Dalai Lama himself always speaks for transparency, accuracy and objectivity, so I tried as hard as I could to honour those principles, and spent five years working on the book every day, much longer than I’ve spent on any other of my works.
To make a move from Buddhist “mindfulness” to the travel writer’s art: How important is it for a travel writer to be able to live in the present—to inhabit the moment fully and pick up sensory detail in an intense way? Or would you say this aspect of travel writing is diminishing in importance in the age of Discovery and Travel and Living?
I would say that this aspect of writing is diminishing in the age of information. When I first visited Tibet, in 1985, I felt that few of my friends and neighbours could ever dream of seeing Lhasa, so my job was to absorb as much of its smells and spices and faces and sounds as possible, to bring back to them. By the time I made my third trip there, in 2002, it seemed to me that most people who might read my books could see parts of Tibet I could never visit on some website, or could walk around the Potala Palace on the Discovery Channel. The one thing that writing could do that no new media could touch was to try to catch the inner Tibet, the discussion inside oneself about how much to believe and how much to distrust, the constant dissolve between realism and dream-state that high altitude, culture shock and jet lag bring on.
So, the external aspect of travel, which has always been to me the least interesting part, is best caught these days by a tape recorder, video recorder or digital camera; the psychological, emotional, spiritual and moral conundrums of travel are more and more the writer’s domain. Marcel Proust in Tibet (as I tried to show in my last book, Sun After Dark) would find things that no National Geographic team could match. And Leonard Cohen just sitting in his monastery near Los Angeles can go places far wilder, more exciting and more adventurous than nearly any climber in the Himalayas. The journey through the parallel world of jet lag is just as remarkable and displacing as the errant holiday through Haiti.
How much of travel writing is about place and how much of it is about the person? Must the reader also be able to sense an inward journey taking place alongside the physical one?
No writer can pretend to give you the ‘true’ India, let us say; all she can offer is her version of India, her particular discussion with it, her sometimes inspired and sometimes insipid take on it. Travel, after all, is a conversation, and every traveller only gets as much from his journey as he brings to it. The reason people read Naipaul on India or Africa is that he is trying, with such poignancy and intensity, to sort out the India, the Africa and the Britain in himself; it’s the hauntedness he brings to the places he visits, the questions that shiver inside him, the uncertainties he hopes to resolve there that give his works a power and passion that most travellers can’t match. Likewise, when you read W.G. Sebald, you read him not for his descriptions of Venice or East Anglia, but in spite of them—and because he is always at some level running from his legacy (as one born in Germany in 1944) and running into nothing more than the perplexity of having been born in Germany in 1944.
Jan Morris in Trieste, Orhan Pamuk on Istanbul, Joseph Brodsky on Venice—all the great writers on place are great because of the unsettledness they bring with them, and the intensity of their concerns.
On one’s travels, one encounters not just other cultures but also hundreds of other travellers. Are Indians good travellers? Do you find from your experience that Indian tourists are in any way different from other ones?
Indians are born multiculturalists, and the Indians one sees travelling are used to speaking four or five languages and navigating several cultures every time they walk down the street in Mumbai or Delhi. They are also trained from birth in some of the rigours of travel—in patience and in flexibility, in other words—are as fluent in English as any traveller on earth and tend to bring a particular energy and engagement that you often don’t find in, say, travellers from China. It’s impossible, and folly, to generalize about travellers, but urban Indians are often travellers from birth, and much less thrown off, say, by New York or Hong Kong than the average American or a visitor from Tokyo, say. Among prominent Indian writers, say, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri—and tens of others—all grew up with many, many different places inside them. It’s no surprise that they were in the perfect time, and place (or places) to hymn into being our new, multinational universe.
What is the best travel book you've read recently? And which is your favourite travel book from before the revolution in travel in the 20th century?
A Crime So Monstrous, by the young American writer Benjamin Skinner, tracing the realities of human trafficking from Haiti to India, does what every great book about place should do: opens the eyes, shakes the conscience and lights up those corners of the world that few of us would dare to inspect first-hand. A truly global work, it shows us the realities that underlie many of our casual pleasures, and reminds us of those truths that affect far more people than (those who) travel on holiday around the globe. After reading it, you cannot look at that red-light street in Romania, or that smiling face in Cambodia, in the same way.
As for classic books, all my books have been written, as readers probably know too well, in the shadow and light of Emerson and Thoreau (who enjoy first word and last in my most recent book, and who offer the epigraphs to at least three other of my works). So, it’s no secret, I fear, that my favourite book of travel is Thoreau’s Walden, which takes us around the world, while never moving more than a mile and a half from its author’s home, which reminds us that true travel takes place in the descrying of new ideas and the entertaining of new horizons—and which asks us, unblushingly, “Why go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar?” Insofar as travel is really about transformation—the only reason ever to leave home—Emerson and Thoreau remind us that the truest and deepest journeys can indeed be found while walking around one’s backyard.
Lastly, what three things would you absolutely want to take with you on any journey?
A good book—Greene, Mistry, Lawrence, Roth—some medicines, and a sense of humour.