Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

A Feel for the Lonely


By Pico Iyer,
Jonathan Cape;1993

Thank God for lonely places. These places, not lonely, in the sense of “moody outcrops off the coast of Scotland, or washed-up atolls adrift in the Pacific”, but lonely in a wider, deeper sense. Lonely places, exiled not so much in space as in time, cut off from the world by decades, in some cases by centuries. Paranoid, surreal, claustrophobic, absurd, haunted; everything, and lonely. Like the chance photograph which I once found in a second hand, antique album, a pre-War photo of three smiling sisters in identical hats, cracked, faded and terribly lonely.

And thank God for travelers like Pico Iyer who not only follow the desire to go to these places but also know what to look for and what to write about. Iyer has an eye for the odd thing, a feel for the lonely. And he writes like a poet in a time when the book jungle grows more pedestrian as it grows. Iyer traverses not only the lonely places on earth but in so doing, explores the lonely places of the heart for the haunting splendour of these places is nothing if it is not reflected in the human heart.

“So it is that lonely places attract as many lonely people as they produce, and the loneliness we see in them is partly in ourselves. Romantic when I first visited Iceland, I found in it a province of romance; returning four years later, in a darker mood, I saw in it only shades of winter dark… Even a jam-packed football stadium may be lonely for the referee… There will never be a shortage of lonely places, any more than there will ever be a shortage of lonely people.”

Iyer takes the reader through Pyongyang, Bhutan, Iceland, Paraguay, Cuba, Vietnam-all places that ring a magical, very lonely bell somewhere in the restless heart of the traveler who is there in all of us. A little oddly, he also takes us through Australia and Argentina, places which I always imagined as lands of a great magnitude and scale but, somehow never lonely. But if one applies Iyer’s definition, then they are.

Pyongyang comes through as a lonely place which is also sad. “It was an unusual place,” says Iyer, “just the same as in the photographs: there were no cars or bicycles along the streets; almost no shops or restaurants or cinemas; nothing in fact, to distract from the spotless and unworldly hush. I walked for two hours around the city but I came across no shocks or surprises, nothing charming nor touching or strange; nothing at all, in fact… The ashen pallor of a ghost hung over the huge, unbending, carless streets.”

And what can possibly make Argentina lonely? With Buenos Aires and its cosmopolitanism which beats New York, and the dark romance that one can associate with vast ranches, polo matches and Sabatini, where the parties go on all night and the streets at three in the morning surprise Iyer with their “never ending parade of long- legged, long-haired Dominique Sanda beauties, some of them dressed as nuns, some with stars on their foreheads, all done up in black leather microskirts and flawless makeup. “What makes it lonely is the “its longing, in the midst of New World spaces, for the Old World it has left.” The same desire that makes Argentina look like “an anthology of greatest hits: Parisian streets, Milanese styles, and Knightsbridge manners; American spaces, Continental cinemas and Oriental bazaars.” And small towns in the Andes with their “white churches dazzling under high blue skies, cacti against hills as many coloured as an Indian quilt”.

The journey takes you through the Lyricism of Cuba, the sun, the beaches, the café and the liquid strumming of a guitar, with all the loneliness of a wistful romance hanging in the air. All played out in a place which has “a shortage of everything except ironies.”

“Havana days are the softest I know, the golden light of dusk spangling the cool buildings in the tree lined streets; Havana nights are the most vibrant and electric, with dark-eyed, scarlet girls leaning against the fins of chrome-polished ’57 Chryslers under the foodlit mango trees of Prohibition-era nightclubs.”

REYKJAVIK is the rock’n roll ghost town, its two claims to fame being the Fischer - Spassky chess match and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Otherwise it’s a place somewhere in the Arctic night, in a land which one cannot help associating with the geography book one read in class three which talked of eskimoes, seals, walrus and igloos. But as Iyer tells us, it’s also a land of midnight discos, Thai restaurants and Ninja turtles. But then there is the desolation of the tundra, ice fields and lava fields. And there is the beauty of the midnight sun and of flaxen-haired princesses and Viking warriors. Anybody who has sat alone on a wind swept mountainside alone can understand what Iyer means when he writes: “Something in Iceland arouses the most passionate feelings in me, and picks me up, and will not let me go.”

I have saved my favourite lonely place for the last. Bhutan, where Iyer spent a few weeks but where I spent three years. All the clichés that one may apply to Bhutan are true-Shangri-La, Hidden Kingdom, remote, cut-off, sealed…For there is an other worldliness beauty in the land, which must surely exist in very few places on the Earth now. Valley after valley, between deep mountains, stretches across Bhutan. Each with its dzong, the huge ancient white-walled fortress-cum-monastery. There is the majesty of the fabulous Tongsa dzong in the faraway centre of Bhutan with its endless courtyards and mysterious rooms where young lama boys live and pray. And when you lean over a wall you can see the gate through which ran the path which connected western Bhutan with the eastern and gave the dzong its tremendous strategic value. And the sheer adventure of the Taktsang, the impossible perched Tiger’s den monastery near Paro- and all that goes into climbing there.

Mysterious and remote, this a land of simple people and lamas, ancient practices and traditions, archery and mass dances. And in Thimphu and Paro, it is a land of Nike shoes and Toyota land cruisers, of the arty Swiss Bakery and the down to earth Benez café where UN volunteers hang out with young Bhutanese boys on weekends. Below them is the weekly vegetable markets where lamas buy huge bagfuls of chillies and National Geographic photographers focus on ancient wrinkled, wispy haired faces.

There is much that is changing in Bhutan but I would tend to agree with Iyer when he says: “Yet what I remember about Bhutan seems unlikely to change very soon. What I remember best is sipping chilled mango juice in the sunlit mornings and walking through blue afternoons, silent save for the snapping of prayer flags; or climbing up mountains to the whitewashed monasteries and watching the lights come on in the valley below.”