The Half Known Life: In Search of ParadisePico Iyer
225 pages|₹ 599
Pico Iyer (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
The author of more than a dozen books, Pico Iyer has carved out a niche for himself over the last three decades as the travel writer with the sensibility of a monk and the derring-do of an adventurer. His new book The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise (Hamish Hamilton; 225 pages; ₹599) opens with the line “Four hours in Iran, and already I was having to rethink almost everything.” It is a sentence that captures the essence of travel, we leave our homes to realise that the world is much more than our books tell us. Here, Iyer travels from Iran to Japan to Sri Lanka to North Korea, and all the while interrogates ideas of home and elsewhere, the possibility and impossibility of finding Paradise. Speaking from his apartment in Japan, where he has been for 30 years, he talks about why we travel and why we don’t. Excerpts:
You once said that your writing is a “commute between hope and history”. This book personifies that.
Most of my books, maybe for the last 15 years, have been about trying to bring hope and realism together. In other words, to see the world as it really is, in my case, by visiting it firsthand. But not to give up hope for it and not to fall into despair that seems so current. I wrote about the Dalai Lama (The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, 2008) and I think of the Dalai Lama as a master realist who also is a great voice of confidence and joy. And then my next book was about Graham Green (The Man Within my Head, 2012), who kind of steals through into that same place through the backdoor, because I feel that he went and experienced the world firsthand. But in his craggy, doubting way, he nonetheless is always giving us reason for hope, for compassion and sympathy with fellow human beings.
A sense of optimism is only as durable and rigorous as the sense of realism that lies behind it. So, this to me is a book about hope and inspiration, but I can only legitimately find hope and inspiration by going into some of the most difficult and conflicted and war-zoned places on Earth. And if I find a hope there, it’s one I can trust. If I’m sitting on the beach in Tahiti and I think everything’s wonderful in the world, it probably is for me. It probably isn’t for the Tahitians around me, and it probably has almost no application to everybody living their difficult lives. This was a book that really came out of the pandemic when everyone was forcibly reminded how constrained and shadowed our lives are. And yet, I think many of us found causes for hope in the middle of that pandemic, and that seemed to be the important thing to try to do.
About Sri Lanka and Kashmir, you mention how much of their sorrow is because they are seen as Paradise. So, does sorrow follow on the heels of being seen by a foreigner as Paradise?
Yes, because I think in Sri Lanka, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and now many travellers and tourists like myself, we all want a piece of this seeming Paradise. And that’s never going to be a healthy thing. It’s like a woman being courted by too many suitors, and they’re all rapacious suitors. Not good, not healthy or fun for that poor woman, or a man if he’s in that situation. So, I think their predicament is that they’re too alluring to foreigners and therefore these have always been places of conflict. If Kashmir were not so abundant in natural beauty and natural resources, I’m not sure if the fight would be as tenacious as it has been.
You travel to places like Jerusalem and North Korea. How do you find humanity behind ideology?
Honestly, any one of us does as soon as we get off the plane. When we hear the word ‘North Korea’, we see just one face usually, which is exactly what one dictatorial face wants us to see, and literally the minute we get off the plane in Pyongyang, we’re smelling other things. We’re hearing people; we’re noticing the little Chanel clip in the guide’s hair. We’re hearing somebody crane forward and ask if Apple has changed now that Steve Jobs has died. And these are things that I never get in my headlines, back in the US when I hear about North Korea. I think it’s almost impossible not to catch humanity when you are encountering the world in the flesh.
Ideology arises out of seeing a place from a distance in your head or through a screen. And as soon as you encounter a human being, instantly, you are in three dimensions and it’s much harder to hold on to your assumptions unless you are tremendously dogmatic. But I love the fact that travel basically, for whoever you are, whatever your circumstance and wherever you are going, will explode your assumptions and expand your sense of how much you don’t know about the place.
You write about Ladakh, “I felt invigorated—uplifted and beautifully simplified—in the high, clear air of Ladakh; but what did it, with its air of self-containment, have to gain from me?” As a traveller, that must be a question you ask yourself often.
Yes, exactly. And the more calm, contented, and self-possessed the place, the more I ask that question. The more paradisal it seems, the more I’m probably the snake in the garden. In other words, as I say explicitly in Ladakh, if it really is quite a happy place, what can I bring it? Other than corruption? It’s a question every traveller has to ask wherever she goes, and it’s not a question we can easily answer.
I think a place like Ladakh is a very real-world place. And when I think of it as Shangri-La, that has a lot to do with me and very little to do with Ladakh. So, Paradise is usually a notion of an observer who’s there for two weeks on holiday and not of the person who’s actually living day after day, struggling to make a living in those places. And of course, if I were to ask a Ladakhi, ‘What is Shangri-La or Paradise?’, she might well say New York City or someplace that has all the things that they don’t have so much of in Ladakh.
Travel strips you well of certain complacency and certain notions of paradise and also asks you really difficult questions: Are you helping a place by going there? And of course, every traveller knows the sensation if you find somewhere really lovely, you want to make sure not to tell any of your friends about it, because even if you’re not the snake in the garden, you’re convinced that they will be, or if you find somewhere really lovely, nothing is more aggravating than to see another tourist, even though she as great a right to be there as you. So, you know, I think we play all kinds of silly games with our heads whenever we’re projecting things onto the places we visit.
You mention how the Dalai Lama has often said that Tibet’s many miseries are because of its isolation. But as travellers we tend to exoticise isolation, which may not be the best for the people living there.
Perfectly said. That’s a kind of colonialism, actually; an imaginative colonialism. Sitting here in Japan, I need my high-speed train and my computer and everything else, but I go to Ladakh and I think, ‘Oh, these people are so much happier without them.’ And, of course, I’m wrong.
So, just as you say, I arrive in Ladakh and it seems pure and pristine, and one of the more beautiful places I’ve seen. And then I think, well, maybe I shouldn’t be here at all, because what can I possibly bring to it? And then I remember the Dalai Lama, who goes there usually for a month every year, who is all in favour of connectedness and our having firsthand exposure to all our neighbours in the global village. And who knows the costs of isolation and probably would say, ‘Please, please come to Ladakh to offer what you can in terms of modern technology and opportunities to Ladakh and to receive what Ladakh has to offer to you in terms of ancient wisdom and continuity.’ Usually, when the Dalai Lama says something, I don’t have a good comeback. (Laughs) In other words, I figure that’s a wise considered perspective.
I would agree with him that in a world that’s all about interconnectedness—which is what the virus really reminded us of—we can’t afford to neglect the world. And we can’t afford to want places in the world to be neglected. And in this book, I suppose I’m probably more concentrating on the danger of neglecting the world.
But my fear is more that I’m living in one of the most affluent places in the world, officially the US. And it’s as isolated as North Korea in its way. And there are people who don’t have a great interest in seeing the world, though often they may have a great interest in pontificating about the world. What’s so frightening about North Korea is that the people there, as you know, aren’t allowed to look at a foreign newspaper, to have any sense of what the foreign world looks like. And so, it’s much easier for them to launch a missile against the US or the West. But then I come back to the US where people do have freedom of movement and freedom of expression, and they know so little about North Korea. So, I find that’s almost inexcusable. North Koreans have a good reason for not knowing about the rest of the world. They’ll be executed if they try to learn about it. But people in the US don’t have a good reason for not knowing about the rest of the world.
The more paradisal it seems, the more I’m probably the snake in the garden. In other words, as I say explicitly in Ladakh, if it really is quite a happy place, what can I bring it? Other than corruption? It’s a question every traveller has to ask wherever she goes, and it’s not a question we can easily answer
Share this on
How do we further the debate of isolation in a meaningful way, is it best to leave tribes like the Jarawas in the Andamans alone, or do we just make everyone modern?
Well, for me, the first question before undertaking any trip is would the people at the other end be happier to see me or not? And in my experience, the more impoverished or oppressed the country, the more grateful they are for visitors. So, when I go to Tibet or Myanmar or Cuba, even though some of the money I’m spending is going to, perhaps, oppressive governments, I still feel it’s a good thing to go because otherwise you’re condemning those people to kind of solitary confinement to absolute isolation from the world, sort of virtual North Korea. When it comes to rules about travel, I suppose it would be wonderful if individuals were allowed to decide that more than governments, and I think the unease you’re describing, is when the government decides it will protect the nation, which is probably good for the nation but not always good for the individuals who, no doubt, crave interaction with the world. I remember I spent three weeks in Bhutan in 1989, and in some ways I preferred Nepal in those days to Bhutan, precisely because there was the jostle of constant exchange with the rest of the world. And I did sense that many Bhutanese were craving contact with all of us and craving the kind of information we can bring. One of the beauties of being a tourist, is that you’re a living newspaper and you’re walking television set and you’re bringing the rest of the world to people who sometimes don’t have much access to it.
I noticed there’s no mention of dates in the book at all. Can you talk about not pinning down time?
Yes, thank you. It’s a really good question, and in this book, I’m trying to catch cultures as they might have been 40 years ago, and as they could be 20 years from now, just as when you meet somebody for the first time and she’s 73 years old, you can describe the fact that her hair is grey or that her faculties aren’t what they used to be. But you can also try and catch the person who was there, even when she was 21. In other words, what is her character beneath all the changes that time brings?
So, in the case of most of these places, I went there and wrote very, very detailed, historically rooted accounts of them as they were at a certain moment in time. But when I went back to write this book, I worked hard to take out all the references and to take out everything that was particular to my visit to try to catch something more enduring.
As you can see the description in each chapter is almost like parables more than reportage. They are not about trying to catch a country at a particular moment. They are about what that country is and what questions it will open up in a typical tourist like me. And my editor did a very good job of really pushing me even further to take out all the references.
The leitmotif is how Paradise is in the now and it is about finding it within you and in your immediate surroundings. But then that raises the question: Why travel?
Yes, I agree. My next book, which is a companion piece to this one, is about 32 years I’ve spent with a group of Benedictine monks who, by definition, really never leave their cloister, and they have all the Paradise they want right there. So yes, I think ever since I began travelling, I’ve quoted, and taken my inspiration from [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, who said, ‘Travel is a fool’s paradise if you think you will find anything abroad you couldn’t find at home.’ And from his friend [Henry David] Thoreau, who said, ‘Heaven is under our feet rather than above our heads.’
I think, in a global village, it’s important to know our neighbours and so there is that sort of geopolitical reason why I want to see what a North Korean says to me and I want to hear in Iranian rather than just hearing what CNN has to tell me about Iran. So, on that level, I think there’s a real importance in getting to know the world. But in terms of one’s own psyche, as you said, finding Paradise or happiness or whatever, I’m sure you can find as much in your home as if you go all the way across the world to Tibet. And, as you say, that is the point of the book.
The title is taken from a line in Moby Dick. Can you talk about that? Also, why is the ‘half known life’ not hyphenated on the book cover?
Perfect question. (Laughs) And we must have spent weeks debating whether we should have a hyphen or not. I think in Moby Dick there isn’t a hyphen. So that’s what finally decided on it.
So, regarding Melville [Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick]. He became one of my great friends during the pandemic. He was always by my side. Long months of lockdown allowed me to reread Moby Dick and really spend months on end with Melville. And I always think the poignancy of his life is he was always looking for answers to the most impossible questions, and so he seemed to throw an intriguing light on the search for paradise, because I don’t think paradise can be found by searching for it.
The reason I thought it was such a perfect title is twofold. The first reason is just on the surface, my sense is that in the age of information, we actually know less about the rest of the world than ever before and know least of all about the countries we hear most about. Such as Iran or North Korea or India or Kashmir. Most of us, if we hear the word ‘North Korea’, we know a little bit about the economy or the leader or the nuclear policies, but painfully little about day-to-day life there. And so, I feel that actually the assumption of knowledge is almost worse than ignorance.
And at a deeper level, the older I get, the more I come to think that my life, and I think every life, is determined by things we can’t begin to explain, whether it’s falling in love or feeling terrified or having the whole world paralysed overnight by a pandemic or suddenly losing your house and everything you own in a forest fire, as has happened to me. How our lives go is shaped by what we do with everything we can’t explain. Because I feel the really important stuff in life, by definition, lies beyond our explanation.
You write movingly about Varanasi, but it is also hard to reconcile the dirt with the faith in the city, no?
There is that sense that’s startling to many of us in Varanasi that one of the dirtiest places around can be one of the purest and that the relation between holiness and purity is very complicated. And I think Varanasi made me think that I couldn’t make simple distinctions between what is sacred and profane, and that actually true holiness meant not even being tempted by those distinctions and throwing one’s hand around everything.
And I didn’t include it in the book, but there was one moment when I was standing by the ghats, kind of unsettled by the intensity and the chaos all around. And two Tibetan monks arrived, one American, one from Tibet, and called out my name. The American monk looked out over this clamorous scene, and said, ‘Isn’t this glorious? This is reality. This is exactly what we have to embrace. This is our obligation in life to find Paradise right in the middle of this confusion.’ And those were very bracing words for me.
My last iswhat has been your most recent moment of joy?
Oh, what a lovely question.
So, it’s embarrassing. I’m just so thrilled to be back in Japan. If you can find Paradise at home, most of your problems are probably taken care of.
There’s a famous temple down the street, which is the most celebrated rock garden in the world because there are 15 rocks in this dry sand garden. But from any point you can’t see all 15. So, it’s almost the main tourist site in Kyoto, but if you go there and you go round the corner, there’s a little stone water basin and on each of the four sides is one Japanese character and in the middle is a hole. And if you put the four characters together with the hole, it reads, ‘What I have is all I want’. In other words, if you can be happy with what you’ve got right now, that’s probably the best recipe for lasting happiness.
There’s nothing glamorous or affluent about this suburb in Kyoto where I live. But it has everything I need and nothing I don’t need, and I would gladly spend every day of my life here. That’s a blessed position to be in and probably has less to do with the place than just how you can adjust your mind to your circumstances.