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Book extract

Greene and I



The Man Within My Head By Pico Iyer Penguin 238 pages, Rs 499

Ifelt, at some level that I could not articulate then, as if we had stepped out of a cozy drawing-room comedy, written by Greene in a holiday mood, and into some Old Testament text about the end - or the beginning - of the world. But for my father, I later realized, he could not have arrived in a better place at a better time. His deepest commitment had always been to possibility, the mystic's belief that there's a better life hidden within the one we see;the maxim he most loved to cite to students was from Greene's favorite, Unamuno, about how, to achieve the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.

He had even named his only child after the Buddha and the fifteenth-century Italian Neo-Platonist who had written an Oration on the Dignity of Man. And now he was in a state that seemed given over to unlimited potential, discussing The Symposium with some of the world's most interesting thinkers in the mornings and at night walking in candlelit rallies for peace with Joan Baez and other young champions of hope. He was invited to teach at the local university, along with my philosopher mother, and soon they were both finding that students in California in the '60s, unlike the students they'd taught at Oxford, weren't embarrassed about professing an interest in their studies, didn't believe they had all the answers, were sometimes almost touchingly open to transformation.

Three hundred, four hundred kids started crowding into the lecture halls where my father was talking on Bakunin and Thomas Paine (and, perhaps, the Perry Mason show he'd watched on TV the previous night), binding them all together into a soaring synthesis;he began holding his office hours in an all-night coffee shop, so that students could bring him their questions, their hopes or their plans for as long as they wished. Sometimes, he would still be talking, on Coleridge and Pythagoras, as the sun began to show above the far-off ridge at 6 am.

It was those from the Old World who had the keenest sense, I thought, of how much could be done in this hopeful and accommodating society and how, in fact, the very principles of classical philosophy could be given new wings and life in this place so unconcerned with history. Christopher Isherwood, Greene's distant cousin, came to our local Hindu temple to talk about how he'd decided to devote his literary energies to the Indian swami he'd met here;he'd seen through the decadence of Europe, the worn-out skepticisms of England, and this life seemed more exciting to him.

Felix Greene, the first cousin with whom Graham had grown up in England, helped to found a mystical community in the desert east of Los Angeles where Aldous Huxley, Greene's contemporary and longtime fascination, could deepen his research into the perennial philosophy. Somerset Maugham, Greene's most obvious precedent, had told Isherwood, down the road, that his great wish as he approached seventy was to go to India to study Shankara.

When my parents took me down to the campus in the warm, subtropical evenings, I could hear wild guitar riffs and Oedipal screams - the Doors - floating out of the basketball gym and across to where the Pacific lapped against the shore just in front of the university lagoon;a little later, the students would burn down our local Bank of America and more or less announce that they were fashioning a new world from scratch, whether in preparation for the future or just celebration of the powers of eternal youth, nobody much troubled to say.

But for a little boy it was all a bit unsettling, and perhaps more so in the presence of a father with vivid and esoteric views, and no siblings to cushion the effect. I didn't know what to make of the two pictures of Western occultists my father kept on his bookshelves, next to Gandhi, and I couldn't follow his frequent references to demons and magicians, a mysterious psychic sphere that filled the invisible spaces around us. And the California I knew seemed so far from time and even reality that it felt more a vision of a place - a cluster of visions, only sometimes overlapping - than anywhere one could learn one's ABCs.

Yet strong fathers are also often the ones with the strongest readiness to give their children a solid education, if only so as to fortify the family against the world (or maybe it's just a way of having a second chance?). And as I sat in our lonely house on the ridge, playing with my favorite toys (numbers), I noticed that the dollar was so strong against the pound - America had clearly taken over as the dominant power - that I could fly back to Oxford, resume my studies at the Dragon (which, conveniently, took in boarders as well as day students) and fly back to see my parents three times a year for less than it cost to carry my lunchbox with the crustless cucumber sandwiches to Hope Ranch every morning.

I didn't stop to think about how hard it might be for parents to give up their only child to rival authorities across the world;I didn't bother to reflect that the smaller party can abandon the larger, as much as the other way round. I raised the idea with my parents and they assented, because they had seen how much I might forget if I stayed in this fresh and unformed society. They had been at least as concerned as I when I described, aged nine, what my twelve-year-old California classmates were planning to do next summer on the beach with Diane.

A curious decision, perhaps, for a boy of nine, but empty spaces can be difficult for a little boy alone and maybe I sensed that my parents, raised on Britain in India, were at times as perplexed as I by this unanchored new world we'd entered, and undefended against the different forms innocence and worldliness took over here. A world that knew itself seemed safer than one in a perpetual state of becoming-at least until I hit fifteen-and even algebra teachers flinging hard blackboard erasers at us and pulling us by the hair could seem more knowable than the vast open spaces of this world without boundaries

So we got into our small blue Plymouth Valiant and drove down the intercontinental freeway to Los Angeles International Airport. A woman in a stylish uniform took me over from there and put my passport and other papers into a plastic bag. Then I was waving and waving at my mother and father, and turning around to follow the woman into the front of a plane. My parents were left to drive the hundred miles home by themselves, while I headed back to the strange, cloistered world of Victorian England
At the other end, a wispy-haired man in a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows was waiting to lead me into an estate car (the previous day I'd have called it a "station wagon" ), along with other boys coming from Buenos Aires, Nairobi, all the imperial postings, and to deposit us in our new red-brick houses around Bardwell Road. The room where I would soon sleep was called Pterodactyl, named, like all the rooms in School House, after a creature long extinct, and in those early days all I could think of was California. I buried myself under my blankets after "Lights Out" and under threat of getting thwacked on the backside with a tennis shoe, fiddled with my tiny transistor radio to try to catch a college football game on the Armed Forces Radio Service, broadcasting from Germany. My only piece of home was an NFL handbook that soon I had read so often I could recite Raymond Berry's touchdown statistics as fluently as if it were Kipling's "If-"

Yet children are often much readier to adapt than their parents are, and before long I was putting on my blue corduroy shorts, my grey Aertex shirt and my blue corduroy jacket-all with "S. P. R. Iyer" in green Cash's name tapes sewed into them by my motherand was happily flinging conjugations of the Greek irregular verb at my classmates instead of curses. The Dragon was the rare school that allowed boys to bring teddy bears with them to their beds. But, wise to the dangers of life in the trenches, I took along only a stunt bear, so that the creature I really cared for could remain safe at home, out of view.

School House was, of course, the name of the building where Graham Greene lived, too, both as a student at Berkhamsted and, in holidays, as son of the headmaster;the name itself might have stood for the universe of his fiction, where even in their forties, Old Boys are putting on the ties of schools not quite their own, reminiscing about faraway teachers, even urging other alumni, met at the club in West Africa, to send reports or love poems back to the old school magazine. In Greene's day, the names of students newly fallen in war were recited every day in chapel (the two hundredth to be killed, by a horrible irony, was called "Dear, " the five hundredth "Good" ). In our day, the war was long behind us-Empire had been seriously wounded in the First War and then killed off in the Second-but tall memorials stood above our playing fields, with the names of the dead all around them, and everywhere we turned were plaques and poppies.

On Sunday afternoons hundreds of seats were laid out in School Hall, so we could watch Zulu and The Bridge on the River Kwai and learn about what loyalty to king and country meant, and how to suffer silently;on Saturday afternoons, a teacher read to us from Esprit de Corps and Stiff Upper Lip, Lawrence Durrell's stories of life in the Foreign Office, to prepare us for our own detachment abroad. We had to run through a long line of freezing cold showers every morning at dawn, though, by some topsy-turvy logic, the number of warm baths we could take was limited to two a week and had to be overseen by young female Matrons.

In chapel we sang, "There is a green hill far away, " and I thought, inevitably, of our house, now painted yellow, on the ridge in California, on the far side of the world;on the last day of every term, just as my mother and her friends had done at Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay, we all but shouted out William Blake's lines about building a new Jerusalem in "England's green and pleasant land. " When I was allowed "out of bounds, " occasionally, to buy sweets from the shop round the corner from where I'd grown up, it was to think of the dentist down the road, in the same street where Graham Greene's wife and children lived. The name of our school magazine was The Draconian.

Once a year, perhaps, through an elaborate lottery system, each of us had a chance to win the ultimate prize: freedom from school lunch. If a letter was chosen close enough to the "I" in "Iyer" -I can remember even now the sensation of crowding around the magic box in the room lined with lockers- I was given a small paper bag and told, at 10:40 on a Sunday morning, that I didn't have to show up again till dinner at 6:15. Inside the bag was a small packet of potato chips, a Penguin chocolate bar, an apple and a 6�-ounce bottle of Coke. Fully aware of how special a luxury this was, I ran upstairs to my room, searched around for the compass in my pencil box, jabbed a few holes in the rusty bottle top and proceeded to sip the elixir through the pinpricks for the next four hundred and fifty-four minutes.

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