Ping Pong and Pico Iyer

An edited version was published in today’s HT Brunch.

Pico Iyer, on a train in Varanasi. Photo by Malek Hue.

Pico Iyer, on a train in Varanasi. Photo by Malek Hue.

Most travellers don’t like owning up to being tourists, but author and essayist Pico Iyer claims the label with a sense of pride. Iyer, whose travel writing over the past 30-odd years has been celebrated for its insightful observations and lyrical beauty, describes himself as a “global wanderer” who has lost count of the number of countries he’s visited. And he’s done it all on tourist visas. Even the place he lives in for the better part of the year – Japan – is one he has returned to year on year, since 1992, on a tourist visa. “I choose to be a tourist in Japan so I don't have illusions about belonging,” says Iyer, “and because a tourist is someone who brings her or his curiosity to everything around her and doesn't assume she knows everything.”

Iyer’s career in travel began unofficially when he was seven years old, and his parents moved to California after his father accepted a job with an American think tank. School was in England while home was with his parents in America. Airports and flights became familiar, special places for the boy who was pampered by the airline staff and had little adventures, like being on the same flight as Oscar award winners who were showing off their shiny statuettes.

More formally, Iyer came to writing after a distinguished stint in academia, studying literature for eight years. “I had no employable skills whatsoever,” Iyer said, laughing. Over the years, writing as a profession has taken a beating, becoming a difficult job to hold down for many. Iyer, however, remains committed to it. “I stick with writing because it's what keeps me sane. And the more difficult life becomes, the more I cherish walking into that cabin in the woods that is my writing and sitting still, processing everything around me, trying to make order out of a tangle of thoughts and impressions, striving to understand everything around me,” he said.

The reputation that travel writing enjoys today for inspiring epiphanies has much to do with how writers have transformed the genre from being utilitarian to philosophical over the past few decades. Iyer is one of that tribe. Through his writing, Iyer has explored the shifting sands of culture and society – as you’d expect from someone with a name straddling three philosophical traditions. His parents named him Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer – Siddharth, after the Buddha; Pico after the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola whose achievements include writing, at age 23, the first printed book to be universally banned by the Church; Raghavan, his father’s name, signifying their Tamil Brahmin heritage. If there was ever a name that raised expectations, this was it.

In his first book of travel writing, Video Night in Kathmandu, Iyer wrote, “The only special qualification I can bring to my subject, perhaps, is a boyhood that schooled me in expatriation. For more than a decade while I was growing up, I spent eight months a year at boarding school in England, and four months at home in California, in an Indian household. As a British subject, an American resident, and an Indian citizen, I quickly became accustomed to cross cultural anomalies and the mixed feelings of exile. Nowhere was home, and everywhere.” Today, these blurred boundaries and the idea of a multicultural identity have become more common, but back in the 1980s, it was unheard of and prescient.

Equally unusual for the time was how Iyer approached the places he was writing about. While most of us would ask locals for a recommendation for a restaurant or a swim-friendly beach, Iyer the tourist tilted his head and wondered about the impact of American pop-cultural imperialism in Asia, or how remoteness was less about geographical location and more a psychological state or an economic condition. What emerged were travelogues that usually acknowledged all the superficial attractions that would draw a tourist in, and then dug deeper into the experience of being present in this chosen location. With descriptions of simple elegance and an eye for quirk and detail, Iyer’s carefully-chosen words transport you to the place he’s writing about.

He is the first-person narrator finding his way around the place he’s exploring, rather than a third-person presence who pretends to be informed and objective. It’s an interesting writing device because it urges the reader surrender to the illusion that they’re stepping into his shadow and relating to Iyer at a personal level, even though few of us can lay claim to having much in common with an Oxford and Harvard-educated writer whose list of friends includes the Dalai Lama and Leonard Cohen. Iyer doesn’t ask you to ignore the way privilege affects the power dynamic between a tourist and locals. Instead, he places himself (and the reader accompanying him) in situations where his outsider status, with all its advantages and drawbacks, is unmistakable – like on a crowded train to Varanasi, or while acclimatising to the thin air of La Paz, or when he’s outplayed by a septuagenarian player in ping pong game.

The rhythms of ping pong beat at the heart of Iyer’s most recent book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells. Set in Nara, where Iyer has lived with his wife Hiroko Takeuchi since 1992, the slim volume is the first of two books on Japan that Iyer will bring out this year. The second, expected around autumn, is titled A Beginner’s Guide to Japan and is intended as a practical aide to a reader new to Japan. Autumn Light is far more intimate and Iyer hopes readers will relate at a personal level to this closely-observed portrait of a slice of ageing Japanese society. “I took great pains not to mention Japan in either my title or my subtitle. This book has a Japanese setting and is rooted in certain particular Japanese rites and customs, but at heart it's about the same stories you’ll hear everywhere from Mumbai to Mombasa: Parents getting older, children scattering, all of us moving one step closer to the end,” said Iyer.

Autumn Light.jpg

In many ways, Autumn Light feels like a companion to The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, in which Iyer wrote about falling in love with one Japanese woman in particular and Japan in general. Published in 1991, The Lady and the Monk is full of bright fascination with a place that dazzles a relatively wide-eyed Iyer. “I had passed through a looking glass and into a world of dreams,” he writes early on in the book. Going against the grain of the standard travel narrative of Japan that delights in the country’s rich history, Iyer focused on modern Japan and how its people negotiate between the present and tradition. One of his subjects is Sachiko, a married woman with two children and broken English (which Iyer quite deliberately doesn’t mend in transcription). As their relationship deepens, Iyer, the exotic outsider, becomes the object of Sachiko’s fascinated gaze even as we see her and her society through his eyes.

In Autumn Light, Iyer’s wife Hiroko Takeuchi doesn’t hide behind the screen of a fake name (yes, she’s Sachiko). Her English is a little better, but still gloriously uncaring of grammar and convention. She also provides the best possible summary of Autumn Light, which Iyer quotes faithfully:

“‘Little no- action movie,’ she says, visibly unpersuaded, and closing the pages of this book without needing to open them. ‘Rain come down window. Car stuck in traffic jam. Quiet music playing. Autumn light.’”

Autumn Light is exactly that: A meditative and melancholy book that explores with care and tenderness the conflicts between elderly parents and their tired, grown-up children. There’s a distinctly Shakespearean feel to the family dynamics that Iyer presents in the book. Perhaps because King Lear is still one of the most acutely observed portraits of old age, in Iyer’s mother in-law, whose mind is slowly unravelling, we see a matriarch who is strangely reminiscent of Lear himself. The grief that Hiroko feels for her father – Autumn Light opens with him passing away – also offers a parallel to the father-daughter bond that Cordelia and Lear share before their relationship is twisted out of shape. There’s also the absent presence of Takeuchi’s brother who is estranged from the family. One can’t help but wonder who Iyer would be in this adaptation of King Lear: Perhaps the all-perceiving Fool who isn’t an insider but is a familiar?

Offsetting the sadness in Autumn Light are Iyer’s dazzling descriptions of both the season after which the book is named and the group of older folk whom Iyer meets when he goes to the neighbourhood club for his ping pong sessions. This collective includes immaculate housewives, gangsters and other curious characters whose real lives are put aside when they pick up the paddle. Seeing himself through their eyes, Iyer describes himself as “a sporty proto-Bieber in his mid-fifties”, thus proving that the cult of Justin Bieber truly is inescapable.

As a sport, ping pong doesn’t have the most glamorous of reputations, which makes it a perfect vehicle for Iyer’s self-deprecating humour. The sport becomes his way of building his own community in Japan. While playing ping pong, each of them stand on their own, independent of the social ties that usually help identify and categorise people. They are neither husband nor wife; anything they do outside the club is sparingly shared. They’re just playing ping pong, with elegance and poise while younger, more able-bodied amateurs make ungainly spectacles of themselves. “One thing I love about ping-pong is that my friends, in their seventies or even eighties, are often more skilful than kids of eighteen. It reminds me that life is cyclical and doesn't proceed in a straight line of either progress or decline,” said Iyer.

In another chamber of Autumn Light’s heart lie the films of Yasujiro Ozu, particularly Late Spring and Tokyo Story. Although Ozu began his career in the silent era, his most celebrated films are from the 1950s and offer a portrait of the Japanese society grappling with change and rebuilding a war-struck country. For Iyer, there’s nothing anachronistic about Ozu’s films from the 1950s shining a light on the broken shards of Japanese society in the 21st century. “Art can't fix society, but it can offer a much more nuanced and imaginative way forward,” he said.

Iyer strives to imbue his own descriptions in Autumn Light with the stillness that characterises the cinematography in Ozu’s films. The long, slow shots of interiors, with their barely-moving people and still life objects, are adapted into scenes of solitude and silences in Autumn Light. Some of the most moving sequences in the book are about the feelings that everyday objects, like a casually-taken but carefully-preserved photograph, evoke; reminding us that often, people are most vibrantly present when they are absent.

Ozu, who began making films in the silent era and died in 1963, may not seem the most contemporary of choices, but though the details in Ozu’s films are distinctly of their time, their conflicts remain strikingly relevant to this day, especially since Iyer’s ping pong companions belong to those Ozu depicted as the young in his films. The children in Tokyo Story – which is essentially about the sense of abandonment that ageing parents felt as their offspring focused their attention upon the future – would be the same age today as his father in-law and the senior ping pong players. From being the ambassadors of the future in the past, they are now the elderly, struggling to find their place in present-day society.  

What’s evident in the new book is the sense of familiarity Iyer feels in Japan, having spent more than two decades there. Yet conversely, it seems one of the features that keeps him grounded in the country is that he remains an outsider. “I feel a very strong sense of belonging there – to a family, to a neighborhood, even to my ping-pong community – but I never kid myself into thinking that any Japanese wants me to be part of their world,” said Iyer. “I'm the outsider stumbling into a professional orchestra without a score, and without a sense of how to play a note of music!” What also makes his eyes sparkle is the fact that it’s a country that he still gets lost in all the time. “I love being lost because it suggests that there's always more for me to learn, I can't take anything for granted and I can't imagine I'm on top of things. Being lost gives me the chance of being found again,” he said.

In an age obsessed with youth and newness, Iyer with his analogue ways – he doesn’t have a cellphone or a digital camera; his notes are handwritten – should seem outdated, but in fact, he has repeatedly proved to be perfectly in sync with the times he’s in. In the 1990s, Iyer travelled out to the farthest corners of our world, mirroring the ravenous curiosity of a generation that found itself not just free to travel practically anywhere, but also able to afford it. Since the 2000s, Iyer’s travels have been increasingly inward, focusing on internal processes, like in The Global Soul. Gauging the sense of exhaustion that characterises the contemporary, he wrote The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. In conversation and in writing, the generic pronoun Iyer uses is not “he” or “they”, but “she”. He says he doesn’t think men have “earned the right” to have “he” stand in for humanity, sounding almost millennial as he rues the mansplaining that tends to dominate discourse in public spheres.

Fittingly for a writer who has managed to stay relevant over periods of dramatic social change, Iyer has little interest in going back places. While he readily returns to favourite works of literature – The English Patient, The Snow Leopard, the works of Graham Greene, the poetry of Emily Dickinson – he’s less enamoured by the idea of returning to a city or country, though places like Cuba have drawn him back repeatedly. Part of this disinclination is a refusal to revisit, and part of it is confident conviction that he’s seen past the façades to see the reality of that spot. “For me places are very much like people,” said Iyer. “They lose hair, gain wrinkles, go through all kinds of dramas and changes, but fundamentally the sparkle and sense of mischief you see in a little girl of eight is usually there in the grandmother of eighty.”

Suddenly though, his eyes lit up. “I’d love to go back to Bengaluru,” Iyer said, adding that he’d last visited the city more than 20 years ago. He remembers it as a place of gardens, he says and adds that he imagines that it’s probably unrecognisable now. And suddenly there’s a glint in his eye at the prospect of facing the unfamiliar again, of being a tourist.

Deepanjana Pal