Every so often a novel just speaks and captures something latent in me, or catches the time i am in. ‘Abandon’ by Pico Iyer is set in Santa Barbara and Iran in late 90s with a British academic studying Sufi poetry – and increasingly love itself. To my surprise and pleasure it mentions exact places i went to in my brief foray in UCSB in 1989 including the newspaper library where i caught up with the South China Morning Post – post Tiannamin square massacre and the Hindu temple in Modecino hills loitering above the eternal pacific swirl and fog. What caught me in this book was Iyer’s incorporation of mystical sufi poetry and his delicate descriptions of love; falling in love with intensity, with capriciousness, with fiery women and fragile hearts. How love and loss awaken the heart from life’s harshness and numbness. He dances between the possibility, richness and at times superficiality of the new world in California, and the old, the austere, yet with its history, of Persia herself.
it slid me into my dreamland, with the mysterious Camilla who weaves in and out of the protagonist John Macmillan’s life seeming oh so familiar, a world in herself, knowing herself fully and yet also sabotaging relationship to test love’s mettle. She seemed broken and fickle, but the beauty of the book is that Iyer makes you question who is truly real. Who is the screwed up one, who is the ambivalent one, who truly loves, who risks all? Such questions, riddles at times befits a book with a plot of finding lost Rumi poetry spirited out of post revolutionary Iran for his PhD. To abandon oneself in loss, to abandon oneself in following the unknown. In an age of effortless continental travel who is the outsider and insider? Who lives in a culture with a living transcendent truth. I mulled over this as i read, wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Outsider’, given by former girlfriend hinting at my perpetual distance perhaps, reading the book in the heat and pace of India, letting me slip into the insider for that moment, into the new, the present moment before the curator in me and us, steps in and steal life’s vitality from the shadows and puts itself centre stage, running the show. i read it slowly, a chapter at a go and each time i found myself slipping into a dreamscape where Iyer and i shared not just a library room but somehow a viewpoint, of the outsider looking in, the one who can flit between cultures, yearning to be love, yearning to be present. Moving from watching dervishes to swirling in our life, and in those rare moments of grace finding Eliot’s still point:
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time
Sometimes life does not fit the social script and being true to that is being true to an inner script. In Camilla’s capriciousness lay bounty, in the seeming broken lay wholeness; in searching lay stuckness, in giving up lay reward. i dreamt a year ago a voice booming ‘life is the the opposite of what it seems’ and this book reminded me of that.
Never have i read descriptions of love and relationship that felt so real to me. To write of the hesitancy, the tremulous, the distance, the ambivalence, the struggles of life, of the doors that shut between want to be lovers, of sleeping in separate rooms, of where the wild lies in us all and how we compromise and dance between our desert and our city inside in the world. In my Tibetan travel years i experienced that the desert can be more multi hued, richer than any psychedelia and it is in the desert that Macmillan and Camilla find their richness together, in a monastic cell. Iyer captures entitled ambivalence in the remoteness of Macmillan, the city life and then as he learns to risk all for love, his career, his pasts, his past love, and walk his Sufi talk so a world of possibility opens, where the inheritance of distance is transformed into a fire of that deeper truth that calls us all, the nail that the dervish whirls around.
Its a gentle book, poetic in its prose and with poems too, and caught a moment in me being in and moving to India, the heat, the eternal heat, caught love in its headlights, blinking back, the type of love that is normally not seen, or appreciated, the unspoken the irrational, the teenage tremors in an adult body. Another time it would not have touched me, but it did, and that made all the difference.
And as a post script ‘Norwegian Wood’ by Murakami, gosh what a capturing of young love, the absoluteness and yet carefree wisdom of youth. the delicacy of touch, the yearning for two halves meeting in one. his descriptions of sexuality had an exquisiteness to them. I read ‘Kafka’s shore’ a month before and again, he captures wistfulness so well, a novel of wistfulness interspersed with almost mystical possibility. I can’t be the the first especially with the title he used to describe his writing as the Beatles in prose, he has the 60s revolutionary openness, unexpectedness and lyricism that speaks of a new way of life, a better way, with a beauty slipped in as bonus.
and pps. the Lowlanders by Jumpha Lahiri. Compelling and yet so bleak. so unlike Iyer in that sense. But similar in her ability to jump from past to present, from Calcutta to Rhode island. She writes beautifully, elegantly. yet with a finality and devastation. Perhaps that is real for India too, about how a tragedy can play out over generations. Like Iyer she captures in momentary detail, the hesitations, the shynesses, the hopes, the moments of bravery.. Calcutta is alive in its details, the street visible to the readers eye, along with the characters and the seasons. ‘Woken up by crows’ she writes, something i have noticed here in India, too; my alarm clocks connecting me to nature’s rhythms. It is one line in many but she has an eye for our surroundings. And maybe there is hope, but she leaves it dangling in the wind on a thin thread in a hot gusting pre monsoon evening.
Such pleasure, such dreamscapes the books had. they carried me in their worlds for days. and that surely is the greatest gift of a writer to a reader.