Pico Iyer

Falling off the map

Pico Iyer

The timestamp for the first chapter is 1990. I imagine myself then, 26 years ago, cognizant of the places being referred to in the book only thanks to an atlas, and a penchant for remembering country-capital-currency courtesy school quizzes. Just text in the head, with no images to go along, in a world before the internet.
What then, are these lonely places? From Iceland up there to Australia down south and from North Korea to the right and Paraguay to the left (ideologically, just the opposite!) Pico writes about seven places (the others being Vietnam, Cuba and Bhutan) that have seemingly exiled themselves from the world. In Pico’s words, “Lonely Spaces are not just isolated places, for loneliness is a state of mind“.
Australia is probably the one place that can be deemed ‘alone’ (in terms of geography) too, but all of the other places are just that – lonely, despite being inhabited by populations vibrant in their own way, or being surrounded by nations that are seemingly not too different from them. “More than in space, then, it is in time that Lonely Places are often exiled, and it is their very remoteness from the present tense that gives them their air of haunted glamour.”


The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Pico Iyer

One of my favourite authors writing about a human being who has intrigued me from the time I read Siddhartha. It didn’t disappoint at all!

What is it like to live, practice, preach a faith while facing oppression from one of the most powerful countries in the world? Even as Tibet becomes more of a Chinese province day by day – the Potala Palace is treated as just another tourist attraction and the streets of Lhasa are filled with entertainment and shopping options – and several Tibetans question the wisdom of his approach, he is respected across the globe as a spiritual leader for the universal truths he espouses.

And yet, he underplays the role of religion, and stresses his own humanity while creating a future for Tibetans that is less dependent on him. He has brought Tibet to the world – a culture that was as hidden as a treasure and also gave the world a brand of Buddhism that is universal in appeal. Pico puts Tibet well in the context of a world that has moved from too little info about itself to too much in a few years.

Pico also writes well about how even with all the respect, people probably see his images and messages through the ‘keyhole of their own priorities’. He once mentions an instance when the Dalai Lama cried- he was asked ‘what is the quickest, cheapest, easiest way to attain enlightenment’.

While much of the book deals with His Holiness’ thoughts and perspectives, there are also mentions of his family, his early days including the time he was forced to flee from Tibet, and quite a few pages devoted to Dharmasala. Dharamsala – where foreigners come seeking wisdom, antiquity and mysticism from every Tibetan they see, and some Tibetans play the part to understand and probably even reach the lands of ‘abundance and freedom’. Pico Iyer writes about the confusion faced by young Tibetans – on whether to stay on in Dharmasala or go back to Tibet to either change or be changed. Dharmasala – also the place to which Tibetans flock, braving persecution by the Chinese, just for a glimpse of their leader and their belief that at some point in time, he will solve their problems.
In addition to all of this, the wonderful quotes, the additional sources of information on the subject, and various perspectives all offer us some thoughts on ‘joyful participation in a world of sorrows’.


Notion states

My last post on the subject of home was in the context of the multicultural world we are creating, how in our pursuit of convenience and familiarity we might end up creating a homogeneous world, and whether the idea of home would change with time, as we begin to choose places that connect to our soul over the soil we were born in. (soul vs soil courtesy Pico Iyer)

One of my main punching bags in the institutional realignment line of thinking is the concept of the nation state, more specifically its relevance in a massively connected world. A simplistic view is that economics, trade and many other things might be better off without them, given how much of an enabler technology is turning out to be, and geo politics will anyway be a lesser phenomenon if there aren’t any nation states. Arguable, yes.

However, I had very little idea on the replacement concept. Geography (land) would exist and would have to be organised in some way. What way? In a wonderful display of appropriateness, Wired gave a possible answer – in the form of a post titled “Software Is Reorganizing the World“. I loved the concept of ‘geodesic distance’, and the mapping of not nation states but states of mind. (soul) The idea of (what is now) cloud communities taking physical shape is fantastic! While it might sound far fetched, it really isn’t – the post gives historical precedence and emerging patterns to back up the idea. As does Tony Hsieh’s The Downtown Project in the present day to transform the decaying and blighted part of the old Vegas Strip into the most community-focused large city in the world.

Around the same time, I came across this Facebook (official) note titled “Coordinated Migration“, (thanks MJ) which shows how Facebook is using ‘hometown’ and ‘current city’ descriptions to track migratory patterns across the world. Probably, in a few years, this would be a mapping everyone would take a keen interest in, to find kindred souls, and to be what they are destined to be.



until next time, a state of bliss

A long way away from home

The Global Soul’ is not my favourite Pico Iyer book (though he is a favourite anyway) mostly because I couldn’t connect to three out of its six chapters. I picked up the book because, in addition to it being a Pico book, it was about a subject that has fascinated me for a while now – the concept of ‘home’. This, in a multicultural world whose corporate citizens are rapidly making sure that ‘Everywhere is made up of everywhere else..’ I remember writing about this almost three years ago, in the context of another travel book and my visit to what I still consider home – Cochin. It was evoked by the presence of the same brands that I might see in a mall in Bangalore, the disappearance of familiar landmarks, and the residents referring to new landmarks that I really didn’t know of. It is perhaps unfair to expect that even as I changed, the idea of home would remain a constant. Maybe I will get used to that in a while too.

I had wondered whether, in our pursuit of convenience and familiarity, we might end up creating a homogeneous world. Now I wonder if we might be one of the last generations to live in a truly heterogeneous world, as, in addition to the corporate imperialism, culture also becomes the most exported and imported product, courtesy technological advances – real and virtual. Home is, as the t-shirt goes, where the wifi connects automatically, and I’d be able to recreate it anywhere, with all the props made available to me.

Every year, around this time, there is usually a home visit, and I would be chronicling it, this year there isn’t. Our regular visit targets are missing in action, and going there doesn’t make sense. I wonder if this is how it begins, and a couple of decades later, when I’m traveling, a bout of homesickness would hit me, and I would realise that it wasn’t Cochin I was thinking of. I’ll probably feel sad then, and guilty. But for now, I am closing my eyes, and recreating Cochin in my mind, with no props. I am able to, I can sense the wistfulness as I walk through the streets (without Google) and they haven’t changed. It’s heartening to know that while I have left Cochin, it hasn’t left me.


until next time, homegrown can be grown?

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto

Pico Iyer

In the autumn of 1987, Pico Iyer begins his journey into Japan, one that would last a full cycle of seasons. Depending on the prism you choose to see it through, the book could be many things.

It could be a travelogue, though quite different from any I have read yet, and yet one that not only dispels any ‘second-hand’ notions (eg. the Japanese’ take on Kurosawa was surprising) but also captures the nuances of a place unknown to me, in a very sensitive manner.

It could be the journey and yearning of one human being to understand and experience a culture alien to him/her. Him, from the perspective of Pico in Japan, whose original wonder and positive bias changes into a more pragmatic view as time passes, and her, from the perspective of Sanchiko, a vivacious Japanese lady with a husband and two children, whose heartfelt desire it is to escape the confines and constraints of her culture and upbringing.

It could be a glimpse into the world of Zen – its monasteries and about living in the moment, without the baggage of the past or the future.

It could be a relationship between cultures – not just east and west, as shown between the author and Sanchiko or other nuances captured through various other characters, but also within Japan itself – the free spirited Sanchiko versus her friends and family who are against this freedom she desires and wants her to just make the best of her marriage and the duties it entails.

Or it could be an elegant love story, with Japanese poetry and beautiful descriptions of nature, and in the way of Japanese, one with a poignant ending, just like the story which seems to be the inspiration for the title.

A wonderful read, and an armchair journey that has given me much to think about.

Abandon : A Romance

Pico Iyer

I’m quite a fan of Pico Iyer’s travelogues, so this was a book that had to be checked out. The protagonist is John Macmillan, an Oxford-educated Englishman, in California to study the work of the Sufi poet, Rumi, and complete his thesis under the guidance of his professor Sefadhi. On a trip to Damascus, he happens to meet a reclusive professor, who requests him to carry a package to California, to be handed over to a Kristina Jensen. While doing that, he happens to meet Camilla, Kristina’s sister, who, despite her flighty and fragile nature, makes inroads into his life. And then starts a journey that’s part a search for an Iranian manuscript, part an inward search for John, much like the sufis – “We are even mysterious to ourselves, they believe: a part of us going through the rituals of our daily life, while another part, a deeper part, cries out for whatever it is that can take us back. The stranger whose voice we recognize as our own.“, “..for the true Sufi, the looking is the key. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

The word ‘Abandon’ too can be seen from different perspectives – from the Sufis’ mystical version of abandoning themselves to a higher power, John’s need to let go of his notions and caution, and Camilla’s seemingly unconscious way of living her life in abandon, even as she fears that John might her leave her because of it. To me, the novel by itself was a kind of ‘abandon’, just like John’s thesis in the book – as though the author worked on a structure for some part before, towards the end, he let the work chart its own course.

I do think the book might have a lot of subtext that deals with Islam, its interpretations, and its relationships with the rest of the world, but I’m not really qualified to explore those aspects. Even otherwise, its a very good read, in which there seem to be layers hidden beneath each statement, waiting to be uncovered, just like the excellent poetry that is shared within.

Books and Labels

Not sure if a lot of people do this, but sometimes I ‘drag’ my reading. Not because the book is boring, but just because I want it to go on for some more time. :)

The last recipient of this treatment was Pico Iyer’s “The Lady and the Monk”, which is part travelogue, part human journey, part Zen primer, part romance and possibly several other things too. I think this book will come up many times in this blog in future too, because it gave me multiple feed (foods didn’t sound right) for thought.

Among other things, it has left me with a great interest for the Zen school of Buddhism. I have started looking for more information on that. Meanwhile, in the book was this guy who had a seemingly simplistic approach to ‘labeling’ things – ‘necessary’, ‘useful’ and ‘useless’. When I think about the things I own/ am passionate about/ spend a lot of time on, and try to categorise it on those labels, it gives tremendous perspective, and I wonder if applying these labels regularly and mindfully would make me more, or less human. Try it out :)

until next time, non zens?

Armchair travel plans

If I discount Pico Iyer, the travelogues of Pankaj Mishra, and Mishi Saran’s Chasing the Monk’s Shadow, I hardly read travel books. But I picked up Rahul Jacob’s ‘Right of Passage’ on a whim (influenced by Pico Iyer’s comment on the jacket) and quite liked it, mostly because its really not just a travelogue. Shall publish a more detailed post on that later.

I was hooked on early enough thanks to the last lines of the preface

Still, there is this final paradox of travel: time and again, these memories come back unbidden with the clarity of something that happened yesterday, long after we have returned to the rhythm of our lives

Later in the book, he compares flight travels with train journeys – that he can remember his first flight journey but the rest are a blur. In contrast, however, he remembers most of his train journeys. Though I’m not really the most frequent of fliers, I can relate to that.

I wonder if its to do with memories of childhood, in which train journeys played a very important part (for me), and that affinity meant that later journeys would also be cataloged better by the brain. Or is it the entire set of experiences – from ‘uniform’ airports to passengers consciously avoiding each other even if it means staring resolutely at the seat in front compared to colorful railway stations that seem to be oozing character to seats facing each other and almost forcing conversations?

I juxtaposed this with cities and their culture too. Recently, when I went to Cochin, and dropped in at its most ‘happening’ mall, I wondered how much of homogeneity was being created by malls. The same brands, almost the same store experiences, familiar multiplex chains that somehow give you an air of familiarity even in an unknown town (not Cochin for me, but otherwise). How much of a city’s original hangouts and culture will survive this  onslaught? In fact, I even told D that I could already see landmarks of my days in Cochin  (local shops famous for some particular item) disappearing and the new ones (like a Nilgiris store) being unfamiliar to me. Would most people prefer familiarity over serendipity? Or would a middle ground be found – carefully packaged serendipity?

Going beyond the things to be seen in a place, every travel experience is also about the  discovery of the character of the place you visit. Will we end up creating a homogeneous world, in our constant quest for convenience, and change travel from the train journeys they should be (opinion) to controlled fancy flights?

Fortunately for this generation, this is perhaps not a reality we’ll live to see, and even in the sunset years we will have our memories and photographs and be thankful that not all journeys need travel.

until next time, planed travel

Back to eternity

Despite being a Star Trek fan, I happen to think that Time is the final frontier, at least in the horizon that I can see. I find it quite intriguing that, though it might be looked on as a tool for tracking, I can perhaps not account for most of my lifetime. I don’t mean the large picture, I haven’t lost it totally yet, but specific minutes. Take for example, the last hour and account for all the thoughts that rushed in. I would find it difficult.

If you close your eyes, and allow your breath to be the only meter, the perspective of time undergoes a shift. Meditate a bit, and its easy to see. Easy to see that even the measurement of time – years to seconds and beyond is our  construct. But it is so ubiquitous and enmeshed in our lives that it seems as though it is a constant and only we change. It requires dramatic events for us to pause and note the passage of time. Kahlil Gibran has said, ‘Perhaps time’s definition of coal is the diamond”

Meanwhile, I wonder if all the information about those unaccounted for minutes is stored somewhere in my brain, and is just not deemed enough to be of any priority for me, and hence seems inaccessible. The tools that consume me these days – most specifically Twitter, and more recently, Foursquare, also help me keep track of what I’ve been up to, and when it works the same way for everyone is when there is an information deluge, and that seems to be something we find difficult to handle. Something that we have discussed before. There is a toon I found (here) that correctly describes the way a lot of us seem to be functioning now


And in another example of how man is shaping his own evolution, I read about companies like Lifenaut, which  ultimately aim to create humanoid robots powered by a backup of the original human’s brain. (via @pkaroshi) The first step is to create a digitised version – an avatar, and give it enough data for it to mimic the original human. It makes me wonder whether we will be able to create ‘consciousness’.

And that makes me think a bit more – by the time, we are technologically advanced to create it, will we have forgotten what consciousness is? Which also begs the question whether we have ever understood it at all, when we are not even mindful of the minutes of our lives? How does one define it? So many reactions which seem pre-programmed when one thinks of it, actions and reactions more out of habit than any conscious choice being exercised.

So yes, with all of the work happening at a rapid pace, (do read) I think its more ‘when’ than ‘if’ – that we will become immortal, and time, from a future point of view, will become immaterial, because the future will be infinite. But we still may not be able to undo what we did a minute back. Where does that leave us? To quote Pico Iyer (from Abandon) “God has to be understood in the context of everything that is not Him”. But that is a different discussion, I guess. Its only that with every advancement that humanity makes, and in that process also usurps things once attributed to divinity, I begin to wonder where that leaves our versions of God?

until next time, time.ly links :)

PS. I tweeted sometime back, even if you never read an Asimov work, or never plan to, this is one that you should read. The Last Question.


The best thing about buying second hand books is that they might contain stories. No, I haven’t completely lost it, I meant additional stories. Messages, notes on the side, bookmarks from previous owners – they’re all stories. Stories that give you a tiny glimpse of the person who wrote it, or the person it was meant for. The last one I saw – in Pico Iyer’s ‘Abandon’, was very interesting. It said

Dearest A****,

Though this seems, and is the last day at C-72, I promise that its the first day and a nev be start to the best days of our life together.




I thought there was an amazing sense of romance in that little note. A story from almost seven years back. I wonder why A sold the book. Did they break up? Maybe she didn’t like this genre? Maybe they shifted, and there was no way to carry this. It was an empty page, A could’ve torn it off, she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t have time, maybe she didn’t care.  Maybe she didn’t remember. Maybe, God forbid, something happened, and S didn’t want any memories? Maybe  she returned it to S after they split, and he sold it. Maybe S never gave it to A, and instead sold it because some memory was too painful? Now you see the possibilities? But, to quote from the book itself “We are no greater than the height of our perceptions”.

I’d only started on the book, but it had already given me a thought. “The death of the author is a way of talking about the death of God. The world itself becomes a poem whose author disappeared long ago.” So the poet dies, the poem remains, the artist dies, the art remains, the author dies, the book remains, God dies, his creation remains, to be interpreted and shaped by us, the ones who see and experience it, limited by the ‘height of their perception’. Maybe the creation was never completed? Like the stories that remain in the head, never to be told. Like the pages that fill the waste baskets. Like the blog’s draft folder? :)

Meanwhile, on the next page of the book, there is a signature now, dated 10/04/10. He thinks he won’t sell any of his books.. ever. But then, stories have a way of twisting themselves in time. :)

until next time, home pages :)