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'Displacement is my home'
"So long as I was loose in the world unaccompanied, I was never bored or at a loss, " writes Pico Iyer in The Man Within My Head. In his latest book - a captivating account of his affinity with the author Graham Greene - Iyer returns to the theme that runs through so much of his work: a life spent as an outsider. This writer of magical travelogues and stimulating essays spoke to TOI-Crest about his relationship to Greene and why he is most comfortable when he is not too comfortable.
'The Man Within My Head' is a difficult book to categorise. How would you describe it?
I would say it's a meditation on how hard it is to categorise or characterise anything important. We meet a stranger and feel a sudden kinship with her, we step into Paris and feel as if we've been there before, we open a book and imagine we can anticipate what's going to happen next (and are right in that anticipation) - and we realise how much the best things in life, whether connected to love or faith or terror or even the imagination, lie outside our explanations.
Graham Greene, more than almost any writer, never wanted to be placed inside a box or a category. He was a Catholic who claimed not to believe in God, an Englishman who always seemed to be in flight from Englishness, a man of rare kindness and conscience who liked to present himself as a sinner. I, too, as someone of Indian ancestry born and educated in England, officially resident in California and living for the past quarter-century in Japan, have never felt comfortable with any fixed definitions. So, to do justice to this suspicion of categories - in him and in me - I tried really hard to write a book that wouldn't fit snugly into any box. It's not a memoir, it's not a biography, it's not quite fiction and it's not really non-fiction. It's whatever exists in between all those terms.
When did Graham Greene first take up residence inside your head?
I could give you answers, but I wouldn't believe any of them! In other words, I could tell you how I grew up on the same road in Oxford next to which he had lived, was born in the hospital where his daughter had been born, went to the same elementary school where his son had been, went through the same classic English boardingschools that he made famous and then found my way to Saigon, Haiti, Cuba, Paraguay and many other of the places he indelibly haunted.
But none of that explains why I feel a kinship with him and not, for example, with Aldous Huxley (who went to the same school as I, lived in the same building there, then went to the same university I went to, then travelled around Asia to write about it, as I did when young, then came to California and saw his house burn down, as I did).
I suppose part of my point in this book is that the core of affinity is mysterious. Why did I choose my wife Hiroko when there are 10 million other women with dark silky hair in Japan? Why do I feel a kinship with Japan itself when I have no formal connection to it and can barely speak its language? Why do I keep dreaming of a place I visited once in California 25 years ago - and never of the places that surround me daily? I feel that knowing things often reduces our encounter with them, and does insufficient respect to all we'll never know.
What is the recurrent theme in Graham Greene's novels that so grips you?
I love the fact that he always puts kindness before doctrine, and stresses that what we do in life can be more important than what we believe or don't believe. I love the fact - this seems to me a great spiritual value - that he's always tough on himself and kind towards others (the only characters who seem unsympathetic in his writing are the ones that most resemble Graham Greene).
I cherish his interest in what he can't explain, and the irrational forces that sometimes define our lives much more than do the things we can explain. I love the way his books are all a dialogue, in effect, between innocence and experience, our wish to surrender and our longing to remain on guard. And I've always been drawn by his fascination with the complexities of faith. Greene was too rigorous to accept too unquestioning a sense of religious belief, yet he was too honest to write religion off entirely. So he and his characters are always trembling in the balance.
In most regards, this book is a sequel to my last book, on the XIVth Dalai Lama, that aims to extend the question I raised there, to which His Holiness offers so complete and compelling an answer: How to bring kindness and conscience to a world that's often conflicted and confused? And how to dismantle the very notion of an enemy, and acknowledge that the only enemy you really have to battle is yourself?
Do you sometimes see bits of yourself in his character of the "foreigner alone" ?
Oh yes. Indeed, that's the part of myself and my experience I concentrated on in this book. That's one of the things he explains to me. And when I'm in Iceland or Yemen or Ethiopia alone, trying to work out how best to respond to the endless petitions and needs around me, it's wonderful to feel that someone's been there before and asked the same questions - even if he claims to offer no answers!
Which is your favourite Graham Greene book?
The Quiet American, for its ability to tell the story of the American Empire, the British Empire and the Asian Empire, and to tell the story of three vivid, breathing individuals wavering between realism and romance, and to tie the two together, and conclude them all within 190 pages.
I've been rereading The Quiet American every few months for the past 25 years or more now, and every time it finds something new in me and grows as I grow, just as the very best friends do.
Greene apart, who are the other men within your head? Is your father one of them?
Clearly my father is in my blood, and I have more in common with him than I do with anyone - except my mother. Every son carries his father around with him, in his head and in his genes, as every daughter carries her mother around with particular weight.
But in this book I was especially interested in those relations that aren't explained by blood or DNA. If you talked to my closest, oldest friends, they would probably tell you that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are the main men I carry around with me;nearly every one of my books, whatever the subject, carries an epigraph from one of them.
They'd also tell you how DH Lawrence lives inside me, and Leonard Cohen. I once had 20 pages in this book on all that Cohen shares with Greene, and the kinship I feel with both. Each one of those other men within my head would have led to a completely different book, in a different key.
Do all of us have people in our heads?
One of my main ambitions in this book was to encourage readers to release and talk to the men and women within their own heads. Often you can see yourself through them as you'd never be able to see yourself otherwise. So often, I feel, we concentrate on the friends or inspirations we can see, when many of those beings who live deepest in us are invisible, whether because they've passed out of our lives or are dead or are (as in the case of many a writer or singer or actor) unmet in life, though known, we feel, in the very deepest way.
Do you see any single place as your home today ? How do you define the idea of 'home' ?
Home is not the place where you were born, but the place where you become yourself. It's not, for me and for ever more people around the globe, a physical place, but an emotional, even a metaphysical place, made up of the friendships and passions and values you carry around with you wherever you happen to be in the world. It's got less and less to do with a piece of soil, for more and more in our accelerating and mobile world, and more and more to do with a piece of soul, you could say. It's something invisible, internal and portable.
I've been lucky enough to have many actual, physical homes in my life, whether in my wife and the small room we share in Japan;or my mother and family, in California and India;or the Benedictine hermitage in the US where I've spent time for a lot of the past 21 years. But Graham Greene is my home, too, and Leonard Cohen's songs, and the English language.
Does India play any part in your identity or imagination?
It really does. I am entirely Indian by birth, of course, and although I have never been lucky enough to live in India, I carry it around with me, at some invisible level, wherever I go. I grew up with the Ramayana, and with stories of Krishna and Vishnu, and with my parents' memories of Bombay, and in a vegetarian household filled with words that would be strange and exotic to my schoolfriends. And, as with most of us, the longer I live, the more I see how much I owe to my inheritance. Many readers of the books in the West would see a lot of India in me, in my love of words (and of reading), some of the Eastern spiritual ideas that seem to intrigue me and even to creep into my writing, perhaps in the colouration or energy of some sentences that seem to speak for an Indian aesthetic.
Why do you maintain that you are most at home in a foreign place?
Maybe because I've been a foreigner since birth, as a little Indian boy growing up in England, and then as a boy of seven with an Indian face and an English accent going to school in California, and then as someone with an Indian name, an English upbringing and an American passport living in Japan.
Displacement is my home, and I have always felt most comfortable, most myself - most at home - on the outside of societies or communities. This can come with special challenges and dangers, of course - and I've lone worked hard to try to address them - but it also brings some advantages, as an outsider can sometimes see things that a local misses. An outsider can take very little for granted and, ideally at least, always has his eyes wide-open. An outsider often appreciates the things around him as those born to them may not.
Whenever I feel too comfortable - when I was working for Time magazine in my twenties, when I was a student in England, and saw that I could have stayed in that university for life, when I began to travel a lot - I try to shake myself up and do the opposite. I left Time to live in a monastery in Kyoto;I quit the university that had invited me to stay;I started spending most of my life sitting still after I had been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit.
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