Category: British literature

Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu: The enduring relevance of “go East, young man”

Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu: The enduring relevance of “go East, young man”

Pico Iyer did for the travel genre what Anthony Bourdain did for the culinary arts. With thoughtful reflections on world’s most enduring attractions (as far as the Western gaze is concerned, at least), executed in impeccably eloquent prose, Iyer has traipsed around the globe, from revolutionary Cuba to aethetically minimalist Japan, discussing airports, jet lag, diaspora, cultural appropriation, displacement, identity, and the very essence of global spirit under assault by winds of history.

Today, reading Video Night in Kathmandu, written in early mid-80s, is an interesting exercise. This travel narrative is an echo from a time when the geopolitical theatre was playing a decidedly different movie: China hasn’t entered the WTO yet, Hong Kong was still the crown jewel of the British Empire, USSR was still alive and kicking, and Rambo and Madonna were at the zenith of Pax Americana pop culture. Other things were already as par for the course then as they are now: Thai sex tourism, Bali’s it’s-already-spoiled-paradise kitschization, Tibet’s enigma, Myanmar’s isolation. In Iyer’s Asia, globalization is already in bloom but still fresh enough to still get you excited about being able to order burgers and Pepsi in Nepal.

Travel according to Iyer is both an elegy and a eulogy, a love emoji from Othello to the unfortunate Desdemona, a guilt-laden sentiment only amplified by a thousandfold in today’s age of Instagram hyper-tourism. Today, forty years later, we have moved a wee bit further on the spectrum from a Babel present to a homogeneous Esperanto future (to use Iyer’s gorgeous expression), but we are not fully there yet (and who knows if we’ll ever get there).

Video Night in Kathmandu is an Hieronymus Bosch iconostasis of Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, the Philippines, Myanmar (described as “a malfunctioning guinea pig of fundamentalist socialism”), Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan. The verdict on these lands is complicated:

“Bali drew its strength, its magic and its eerie purity from the ancestral currents that pulsed through its soil, currents that Westerners could sense, perhaps, but never touch; just so, the moving yet unwavering faith of Tibet would withstand the ravages of tourists, I hoped, as surely as it had withstood the vicious assaults of the Chinese. Burma had calmly closed its door to the world, and China had opened it up just enough, so it planned, to take what it wanted, and nothing more. Prodigal, hydra-headed India cheerfully welcomed  every new influence from the West, absorbing them all into a crazy-quilt mix that was India and nothing but Indian; Japan had taken in the West only, so it seemed, to take it over. As for Nepal, and Thailand even more, both gauged Western tastes so cleverly and adapted Western trends so craftily that both, I felt, could satisfy foreigners’ whims without ever becoming their slaves. Even Hong Kong, the last pillar of the Western Empire, was now getting ready to return to Asian hands.” 

Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu

Pico Iyer, a product of Indian, English, and American heritage and, being keenly aware of this legacy, cannot talk about the East without the Raj, the Foreign Office, and Rudyard Kipling. Globalization, some would say, is simply a mutated colonization, a virus adapting, so to speak, to better feed off of its host. As such, the jury is still out on whether “a Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

Image: Beyond Street by Swarat Ghosh.

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

Tony Parsons’ Departures: The magic of travel in seven stories from Heathrow

“Airports were often just the punctuation marks of a lifetime, the twilight spaces between places and people, the no-man’s-land between what had happened and what was yet to be.”

Tony Parsons, Departures

Few who have been subjected, willingly or through insidious pop culture osmosis, to romantic comedies’ crown jewel Love Actually, endeavour to forget the legendary airport scene. Not even the most granite-hearted of misanthropes could roll their skeptical eyes at that endearing thread of faces and embraces, all to (formerly) dishy Hugh Grant’s velvety tenor going on and on about how “love is everywhere,” how “love is all around,” and all this life’s hapless pilgrim has to do to resurrect their faith in humanity is to pop over to the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.

Next time you’re sequestered in some nauseatingly bureaucratic queue at Heathrow (or CDG or any other three-letter IATA combination for that matter), pick up a wee collection  of Tony Parsons’ short stories Departures, a 100-odd pages of smirk, hope, stress, ridiculousness, enthusiasm, regret, new beginnings and yes, love, that irreplaceable conductor of life’s symphony. Unlike the analyzed-to-bits scene in Love Actually, these morsels of airport life are not so much about what goes on in the Arrivals gate as they are about the humble yet vital work that throbs, every minute of every day, in the labyrinthine innards of world’s second busiest airport. What occasionally reads like a manifest promo piece to Heathrow, this collection is, above all, an appreciative hat tip to men and women of aviation who feed and water that enormous heaving beast of an airport and all those who come through (and those, for legitimate or not-so reasons, who don’t).

The stories are seven and all different. There’s a woman confronting her very banal fear of flying (and an even more banal one of seeing the in-laws). There’s an airport animal health inspector cloistered in the animal reception centre with a red milk snake wrapped around his arm and a blue-eyed starlet by his side. There’s a pair of geeky air traffic controllers exceedingly proud of their job, a pilot stoked to be flying Boeing 777s and another who lost his license (and his marriage), a no-nonsense passport officer taking down drug mules but showing clemency to two very different girls stepping onto British soil on the same day toward their pink unicorn wish “to marry their boyfriend Prince Harry.”

None of it is terribly genre-bending. Not all of it is even particularly moving or insightful. There is one quality, however, that not only unifies these stories but also animates them with the kind of unmistakable spirit that makes an aesthetic grouping of words worth reading. The knights of Heathrow all without exception share genuine, effervescent enthusiasm for their work, a childlike excitement, a purity of spirit, and honest passion for their respective 9-to-5s. In our cynical age of boarding pass + passport Instagram posts, in a time where air travel is notably less glamorous, a perfunctory bourgeois activity almost wholly stripped of its former vestiges of romanticism, exoticism, or at the very least exclusivity, Tony Parsons’ Departures show air travel through the fairy dust of childhood wonder for what it truly is and what we, scoffing globetrotters, chose to forget – air travel is pure unadulterated magic. From birds, to bats, to Leonardo da Vinci’s visionary ornithopter sketches, to the stuffy tin can that takes us to that all-inclusive summer beach holiday, it’s all pretty amazing. Perhaps next time at Arrivals we, exhausted, sweaty, and jet-lagged, can exchange our “ugh” for:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., High Flight

Image: IMithila Madhubani, Depiction Of People Onboarding At Darbhanga Airport. iMithila

Ali Smith’s Autumn: a song for Brexit times

Ali Smith’s Autumn: a song for Brexit times

This novel ticks all the literary establishmentarian boxes: Reactionaries vs Progressives. Cosmopolitanism vs Isolationism. Sexual diversity. Feminism. Millenials against the World. All the trendy stuff. All the relevant, resonant, apt, and timely ingredients of Britain’s first “post-Brexit novel,” written hastily after that fateful referendum the results of which will continue dictating much of the political, economic, and cultural discourse for years to come.

And yet none of the above are reasons for why Autumn is a good novel. In fact, all of the above may become potent deterrents for swathes of potential readership hailing from the other side of the political barricades. We are, after all, damned with rotten luck to live in the age cleft in two throbbing wounds of populism and polarization.

Autumn is good not because of its political regalia. Autumn is good in spite of it. It’s good because of masterful narrative control, because of its intensely intimate third-person style, because of its seemingly effortless sardonic wit served up amongst bursts of genuine kindness, because of free-flowing sentences worthy of Virginia Woolf, because it spins the thread of chronological time like a 90’s kid a yo-yo.

And I haven’t even paid tribute to the core story, a tender friendship between a 30-something art scholar Elisabeth and David, a centenarian with bitter experience of Europe’s darkerst hours. As the latter tumbles from moments of sweet clarity into later-life necrosis and back, the former navigates mundane familiarities of our modern life, with its absurd bureaucracy, housing crisis, uninspired academic advisors and, above it all, the macabre shadow of once-in-a-generation political uncertainty. The historical parallels drawn between the world of Elisabeth and that of David’s continental European youth are so crudely obvious they can probably be seen from space. Yes, we get it, things are bad, thing will likely get worse:

“It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue. It is the end of dialogue.”

And now, for a striking image of obviously Trumpian foreboding:

“All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there,

a whole new line of fire,

line of battle,

end of the line,

here/there”

Ali Smith builds a cautionary landscape of walls, lines, demarcation, otherness, the full collection of unmistakable warning signs, but if she were to stop at that Autumn would be nothing more than a prettily worded pile of trendy banality.  Smith does one better and offers hope, nesting right there, in our everyday language, in our words, the potency of linguistic creation:

“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up.”

Language can make and un-make regimes, empires, civilizations, the entire LEGO set humanity so scrupulously built. What’s one wee Brexit in this grander context. Dandelion fuzz, nothing more. As Daniel the centenarian puts it:

“Whoever makes up the story makes up the world. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That’s my suggestion.”

If there’s charm in this little book it is precisely this – finding comfort, stability, and reassurance in eternal, human, and natural things. All political neurosis aside, Autumn is a desperate search for primeval safety in turbulent times.

Image: a graffiti in Bristol, courtesy of Twitter.