“Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places and saving them from abstraction and ideology,” writes Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer in his iconic essay Why We Travel, first published in 2000 in Salon. In that same essay, filled with travel anecdotes, literary, spiritual and pop-culture references and sprinklings of history, he speaks about how his background “the son of Indian parents, in England, moved to America at 7 and cannot really call myself an Indian, an American or an Englishman” made him a “traveller at birth”.
In the last three-and-a-half decades, Iyer’s travels – both to novel places and the deepest recesses of his own mind – have produced some of the finest literature of our times: from an account of meeting a “Talmudic-looking gentleman” at a Zen Centre in California who turned out to be Leonard Cohen to essays about snow leopards, Kyoto, Alice Springs, Somerset Maugham, the Silk Road, and much – so much – more. His next destination is Bengaluru, a place where Iyer, who will be speaking at the Bangalore Literature Festival (December 3 and 4) this year, admits to having been keen to visit. “I’m hugely eager to see Bangalore again because the last time I visited was 48 years ago, in 1974, when I was 17,” says Iyer, who remembers it as a sleepy town of quiet parks and slow-moving bicycles. Not anymore, however, he knows. “I can’t wait to see a city that will be almost entirely new to me and surely speaks to many of the fascinating and often promising currents of the new millennium.”
Edited extracts of an interview
You've spoken about a secular sabbat: how technology accelerates lives and the need to take a break from it and slow down. Has covid, when life did slow down and people went nowhere, altered your ideas about technology since it played a huge role in keeping people’s morale up and helping them feel less isolated?
I’ve always loved and been very grateful for technology since it’s only our latest machines that allow me to live far from my bosses, to fly across oceans to see my loved ones and, in fact, to get to answer your questions now! My one worry is that not all of us—and here I speak mostly for myself—know how to make the best use of technology and how to be its partner and not its slave.
So, I was thrilled that technology allowed us not just to stay in touch with one another during the long seasons of lockdown but, in fact, to interact as never before. To take an example close to hand, I was able to participate in dozens of public events from here in my tiny flat in Nowhere, Japan—usually, I would have had to give up days for a single hour’s conversation. And I’m excited that so many people are choosing to remake their lives in the light of what they learned during the pandemic and, for example, to work from home.
In my own case, lockdown was a perfect time to open my eyes to everything I might otherwise take for granted and to see all the wonders very close to home. To spend months on end with my ageing mother, as I could never do otherwise; to enjoy the writer’s retreat of my dreams, with seasons of uninterrupted time at the desk; and, by living so close to death, to think about how I wanted to live.
Could you tell me about your latest book, The Half-Known Life: In Search of Paradise? Why do you see it as a sequel to your book on the Dalai Lama?
It’s very much a pandemic book and arises out of the lockdown and the enforced period of reflection that we all experienced. Sitting for months on end in my mother’s house—as she drew closer to the end—moved me to think about what my 48 years of constant travel really amounted to.
Like many, I suspect, I was reminded that uncertainty is the state in which we always live—the only home we have—and therefore, we’re obliged to try to make it as comfortable as possible. If we’re going to find paradise anywhere, it has to be not just in the middle of real life but in the face of death.
One thing I have always admired about the Dalai Lama is that he is a master realist. Not just because of the Buddhism to which he has devoted his energies for life but also because he has been ruler of his people since the age of four. For eighty-three years, he’s had no chance to engage in wishful optimism or unrealistic hopes.
When I chose to write a book about him, it was in part about how he finds hope and possibility even in the midst of the swarm and confusion of the real world and how he sees in the global neighbourhood potential for exchanges that have never been possible before.
To me, he is a seasoned expert in the rare art of making hope and history rhyme, as Seamus Heaney memorably wrote, inspired by the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. How to balance hope with realism—how not to be defeated by the world and yet not get lost in the clouds—has been the theme of my books for all these almost forty years now, and to me, His Holiness is a model in this respect.
Transformation has been a common theme in so much of your travel writing: countries on the verge of becoming part of a global village yet still tethered to a past. Do you see more cultural homogeneity today when you travel? Or do these various cultural intersections end up resulting in altogether novel cultures?
It may be just me and my stubbornness or blindness, but I don’t see any more cultural homogeneity than I ever did. All the world may be streaming Sacred Games and listening to Beyonce, and following the World Cup, but each of us comes out of every movie having seen a different film. Every culture—and every person—translates this common frame of reference into its own context, its own history and its own meaning. The fact that we share more and more doesn’t begin to diminish the amount we don’t share.
I do think globalism brings terrible shadows, which we witness when it comes to the climate catastrophe, the heart-rending refugee crisis, the accelerating gulf between rich and poor across the world and in many of our cities. My travels have always made me feel that we’re not living in a small world and that the differences and the distances between us are, in fact, greater than ever before.
On a cultural and personal level, though, I think we all feel our lives are infinitely richer now that our friends, our colleagues, our partners—our kids—to some extent come from everywhere. The food of today is fusion, the sounds of today are mishmash and my subject, English Literature, has been transformed in unimaginable ways by the sounds, stories and textures of India, Pakistan, Jamaica, Nigeria. I was teaching at Princeton three years ago, and it struck me that three of the most dazzling writers on the campus (Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li and Aleksandar Hemon) were all writing now in a language not their own.
Travel writing, for centuries, was about taking a reader to places they had never seen, getting them to view those places through the writer’s eyes. How has the incursion of social media, crammed with travel influencers, changed the “why” of travel writing, in general?
I think my writing has changed dramatically in response to the fact that anyone who reads me can, in the palm of her hand, watch festivals in Cuba, visit remote temples in Tibet, see almost every place on earth with more vitality and immediacy than I could ever conjure.
That wasn’t at all true when I began writing about the world in the early 1980s. In those days, I felt my job was to gather all the sights, sounds and smells of—say—Bhutan or Paraguay or Ethiopia to bring back to people who could never dream of knowing what such places looked or sounded like. Now every reader can access them in a detail and with a richness, I could never equal.
So, writing about place has to go inward and claim those spaces—in memory, in emotion, in silence—that no multi-media device can catch better. When I write about Cuba, I have to write about the land that lives inside me, my 34 years of returning there, again and again, the mysteries and nuances of an island that I don’t think are often caught with much depth on-screen. In a way, a writer on place is now fully liberated from even trying to catch the surface of things.
The other great change in travel writing takes place not just in the “why” and “how” but in the “who” of it. When I was growing up, I really had the sense that travel writing was a colonial enterprise that for decades had been written by, for example, Englishmen travelling around India or Africa, say, and remarking on the ways of the natives. By the 1980s, it often took the form of foreigners (Bill Buford, Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux), travelling around England, remarking on the curious ways of those locals, and before much longer, it was filled with writers from everywhere—and of every gender—bringing fresh eyes to the world.
When Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy and Anjan Sundaram—when Zadie Smith and Kate Harris and Kapka Kassabova—write about Egypt or the Congo or the U.S. or India, they write in ways that could barely have been imagined when I began writing and throw open the doors and windows of possibility.
You have spoken about how walking through your neighbourhood in Nara, Japan, helps you reorder your thoughts and help with writing, a belief that other writers, including Thoreau, Miller, Solnit, Dickens, Woolf and Wordsworth, also seem to have ascribed to. Why do you think walking and writing go so well together?
It's a curious thing that moving the body somehow jolts the mind—and, much more important, the imagination and the subconscious--into action. The wise economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, based on decades of research, how there are certain activities (like calculating figures or organizing material) that are best done while sitting down, but there are others (like thinking outside the box and restructuring a piece or project) that are best done when one’s taking a walk.
Philip Roth estimated I believe, that he walked half a mile for every page he wrote, and John le Carre probably walked more than that, though with very different intent from Wordsworth.
To me, the mind can go all kinds of places as soon as it’s not focused on a single topic. And though one needs that focus to fashion sentences, one needs freedom from that focus to come up with something surprising. For me, walking has become an essential part of my writing practice because it’s only when I leave my notes behind that I’m capable of coming up with something entirely new and unexpected. My mind becomes a dog suddenly let off the leash on a wide and empty beach.
Are you working on something right now?
I’ve actually never been more excited about writing, in part because I’m trying to say no to almost every distraction that comes along, but mostly because I’m working with a brilliant and kind new editor—Jynne Dilling Martin—at a young and excitingly energetic publishing house in New York, Riverhead.
This morning, I’m putting the finishing touches on a companion piece to my coming book, The Half-Known Life, about the 31 years I’ve spent with a community of Benedictine monks on the Central Coast of California. It’s been hard to write because it’s so close to my heart; in many ways, the days and weeks I’ve spent with those monks—over more than one hundred retreats now—feel like a love of my life. And having gathered around three thousand pages of notes, I found it hard to distil half a lifetime of living in silence into a short, clear book that would make sense to other people.
But writing about what one loves—and some of the people I admire most in the world—is pure delight, and I can’t remember ever feeling happier or freer at my desk. If anything good comes out of this, it will be that I can share something of my experience of a small circle of deeply kind, decent, grounded men trying very hard to survive and support one another—and many of the rest of us—at a time when forest fires are always about to wipe out their home. For someone who sees the whole world as being up in flames right now, and our challenge to be how to remain calm and clear in the face of the constant turmoil, there couldn’t be a more urgent topic—or a more inspiring way of trying to come at it.
The 11th edition of the Bangalore Literature Festival will be held at The Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru, between December 3-4