October 2001

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Vol. I Number 4

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Profile By Ramani Ramakrishnan


Pico Iyer  Traveller in Metaphysical Space

The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; 
he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he 
is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.

Hugo of St. Victor, 12th century Saxon monk


Pico Iyer fits quite perfectly the definition of Hugo of  St. Victor and this will be evident if one has read any of his writings and/or heard his recent Hart House lecture. Pico Iyer, the author of Video Night in Katmandu, Lady and the Monk, and the recent Global Soul and countless articles in TIME magazine, was in Toronto, speaking as an invited lecturer in the Hart House Lecture series for his unabashed praise for Toronto and its multi-cultural mosaic.  We had the good fortune to meet with this forty-something globetrotter after his lecture and mutually explored the many facets of his upbringing and background.


Of course, my first task was to find out the origin of the name Pico.  His name is actually Pico Siddarth Raghavan Iyer.  Both his parents were philosophers (father a South Indian Brahmin and mother a Gujarati) and they met in Oxford, England while working at the University.  His father was teaching political philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford University, while his mother taught comparative religion.  Buddhism influenced them both and hence he was named Siddarth.  His father, realizing that his son would soon be called Sid, decided to name him after Pico della Mirandola, the 15th century Renaissance philosopher and humanist.  That is why his name is Pico Iyer. 


His parents moved to Santa Barbara, California, when his father joined the Centre for the Studies of Democratic Institutions.  Pico, seven then, joined Eton and started his wanderings - studies in a boarding school, but holidays in 60s California.  He feels he had the best of both worlds - English education (good strong discipline) and hippie holidays.  His house in Oxford was a typical English home; his parents grew up during the Raj and hence when they moved to Oxford to study and then teach, England was just an extension of Bombay, India, for them.  Even though they had lived for about 35 years in the US, (his father died about five years ago and his mother still lives in Santa Barbara) no trace of America can be found in them.  They are intensely Indian and/or English and still hold Indian passports.  He still feels that he is English, but as we see later, wants to learn more about his Indian heritage.  Of course, his parents had Indian artifacts and had Hindu traditions, however subtle they might have been.  His parents let him develop in his own way.


After Eton, he read English at Magdalen College, Oxford University.   He competed for the Northrop Frye Fellowship for he was very much interested in Frye's philosophy and mysticism.  He still managed to go to Harvard in 1978, for graduate studies in English, even when he didn't obtain the Frye fellowship.  He immersed himself in Emerson, Thoreau and the American tradition, which goes back to the Vedanta philosophy espoused by his parents.  Perhaps, this just might have been the subconscious parental influence, even though his parents didn't pressure him to be a doctor, engineer or a lawyer as such.  He was a teaching assistant after his MS and stayed for two more years at Harvard.  In total, he studied English for eight years.  He wished he had also studied some concrete discipline such as history or math for that would have assisted him and fed into his writing.  He knew that after Harvard, it is either unemployment or freelance writing for him.


TIME was recruiting on campus and hired him to the position of writer on world affairs for he looked rather international.  He finds that funny for he has absolutely no background in world politics.  According to his logic of life, whenever Pico decides to take the plunge to do something, something or someone comes to rescue him for he feels that TIME's offer of a job was actually a rescue mission.  Pico Iyer unabashedly accepts that there is certain aptness in his life and he is very grateful for such mercies.  Since he had never engaged in politics except in politics of conscience, joining an American-centric corporation like TIME did not pose any ideological conflicts in him.  Actually, he holds TIME in high regard.  After Harvard and its very political, back-biting and in-fighting atmosphere, he found TIME to be a very liberal, intelligent, cultured and thought-provoking corporate center in New York City.  He would sit in New York and write about countries half-the world away from dispatches sent by local bureaus.  He would write vivid accounts of Philippines or South Africa or Peru, none of which he had been to.  TIME was very generous with his time and expenses.  After a while, he started visiting places and wrote first-hand accounts.  Even though he is not a full time TIME journalist now, he still writes for them in addition to Harpers, New York Times and New York Review of Books.  He is still on the payroll of TIME and is very grateful that he can make a living because of TIME's generosity.


The above description, in a nutshell, is Pico Iyer's background.  Of course, there is more to the man than meets the eye.  He is a writer, passionate about his spiritual quests, India, Japan and his unequivocal support for multi-culturalism as espoused, for instance by, Canada.


A writer is always queried about some of the nametags that stick to him/her.  When asked about the travel-writer badge that was affixed to his writing, Pico Iyer responded that he was not a travel writer.  Readers and critics must be reading his books literally.  He goes to lots of places, with a view to highlighting moral or social states of mind.  Yes, if you read him literally, he is walking through the streets of Paraguay.  Humble soul that he is, he confesses that it may be his fault, for he fills the pages with the sights and sounds and smells of the places he writes about.  According to him, travel is almost a spiritual enterprise that deals with moral urgencies and questions that are often shielded when one is at home.  He sees these cultures not with Indian, or English or American eyes.  This inner transformation slowly developed in him over a period of time, from his first excitement with foreign cultures. 


He has been to Japan a few times and seems to have a natural affinity for Japan even though it is a highly racist country.  He was also interested in haiku, Zen garden and learnt about Zen from books by Alan Watts, but had no prior knowledge about that land.   He stayed in a Zen temple in Kyoto for sometime during his year-long sojourn in Kyoto.  It was an  extremely hospitable and aesthetically beautiful experience, but very militaristic and spartan  - get up at 6 a.m. and have cold showers.  It was very redolent of Eton.  He didn't stay there for long and instead stayed outside in a single room, student guesthouse.  He shared two toilets between 15 people and it was a very squalid little place with no TV or telephone.  He would, once a week, go to a telephone and send in an article to TIME over the phone to get his weekly paycheck.  He lived a modest life and saw Zen Buddhism in practice.  He found that the  Japanese people have a strong theoretical sense of Zen - ecosense and compassion.  His take on the Japanese  are: unlike other great cultures in the world, they are not self-promoting people; they instantly think of the larger whole - similar to Indians in some sense - family sense; do not have very wealthy and very poor people; large strata of the populace lives well; ninety percent of them consider themselves solidly middle class; as is common in traditional societies - a woman is called sister or mother; Iyer never felt that sense in the west - very informal.  These experiences resulted in his novel,  Lady and the Monk.


Being a resident, a happy one at that, of Toronto, I was itching to talk about Toronto.  At the time of my interview, I already knew of his unflinching praise for Toronto, its denizens and some of the South Asian writers, such as Mistry, and Ondaatje.  Pico Iyer has visited Toronto six times, only for a few days each time.  His main reason for his first two visits was to go to Cuba.  Even though he was living in the land of the free, USA, he could not visit Cuba from the USA.  He came to the Harbourfront Reading for his third visit, found the writers interesting and learned a lot about writing.  He came again for the fourth time to know more about Toronto for his last book, Global Soul, and spent five intense days engaged in brilliant interactions.  Unfortunately, his notes got lost, where else, but in an airport lounge, and returned for the fifth time to repeat his interactions.  He came to deliver the Hart House lecture on his sixth visit.  He was impressed with Toronto, for every time he reads an interesting book he finds the author to be from Toronto.  Unlike Bisoondath, Robert Fulford, or the Neo-Con politicos, he is appreciative of the multi-cultural efforts of Canada.  Yes, it is bureaucrats legislating decency, but Iyer says that they are, however ham-handedly, attempting to do something good.  Some idealism is always better.


Pico Iyer's profile would be incomplete, if we didn't talk about his personal quest.  His parents' philosophy and background seem to have left indelible impressions and they are surfacing now.  He is very comfortable in a Catholic hermitage or the Santa Barbara Convent of the Ramakrishna Mission - his mother is deeply involved with the Mission.  He still wants to write.  He was deeply influenced by a Cuban's quest to come to USA   and collected enough information about Cuba.  Unfortunately, his 300-400 pages of notes were lost in the great fire of 1990, when his parent’s house was burnt to the ground.  He was left with a single toothbrush and immediately he was reminded of a Zen poem, “My house burnt down, now I can get a clear vision of the moon.”  With renewed vigour he wrote his Cuban novel.


His next project is to write a book of fiction, exploring self in a deep way.  It is set in the Vedanta temple, explores  Sufisim and aspires to be a mystical romance.  It should be released next year.  Through this book, he wants to explore the mystical aspects of Islam and perhaps provide a balanced view of Islam.


He is also deeply committed to explore his Indian heritage.  He doesn’t feel the need to write about India for he says that others have written about India in much better ways than he could ever do.  He wants to learn and come to understand the positive aspects of his Indian (and may be even Hindu) heritage.


Pico Iyer gives hopes to Diaspora group, whether Indian or not, everywhere through his life experiences.  He has lived in different cultures and still managed to retain his oneness.  In his shy and humble way, he advised my wife and me that we should let our daughter follow her own course and trust in that.  Let us wish this global soul hearty success and let me end with an apt quote from his article on silence [From Living Wisdom, Vedanta in the West]. “Living in the Silent Voice, I am no longer ‘I.’   Living in the Silent Voice, I am at last at peace.  Living in the Silent Voice, I am at last erased.”


Ramani Ramakrishnan, specialist in Aero-Acoustics, is on the faculty of Architecture, Ryerson University, Toronto.  He is the Editor/Publisher of Kala Arts Quarterly, where the above article appeared first in the Summer 2001 (Vol. 5 Issue 4) issue.