Armchair Traveller: Pico Iyer Takes Us to Asia Through Books

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Okay, tray tables up, seats in their upright position. We're going on a trip. This summer we'll be taking you around the world and you don't even need to leave your chair. We're inviting authors to share books that have taken them on journeys. First up is Pico Iyer, writer, and I think it's fair to say world traveler as well. His book, 'Video Night in Kathmandu,'  has taken readers on a journey throughout Asia since it came out decades ago. His most recent book, 'The Man Within My Head.'  And Pico Iyer will be talking about 'The Man Within My Head'  in a moment, but we're talking book now that took you somewhere. And the first place we're traveling today to is Mumbai, India. Who's taking us there?

Pico Iyer: Rohinton Mistry, the great Indian novelist based in Toronto, and in particular his novel, 'A Fine Balance'  from about 17 years ago.

Werman: What did it do to take you to Mumbai?

Iyer: It plunges you for about 650 pages into the lives of just four characters in Bombay as it was then, in early 1970s. A widow, a student, and two people from almost the untouchable caste, all struggling to survive during the emergency, the dictatorship of Indira Gandhi at that time. And my parents are both from Bombay. I feel I know that city well. And yet he takes us into these hearts and homes so rendingly, and with such sympathy, we really feel as if we're seeing the city from the inside out.

Werman: So as you say, this is a city you know well. But what side of Mumbai did you see in 'A Fine Balance'  that you had never even kind of contemplated before?

Iyer: So I felt I knew the middle class characters already, but people from a village who go through unimaginable discrimination because they just happen to be from the leather making caste, and then travel to the big city in the hope of finding their dreams and their better life, and end up fighting out with all the other beggars for their little two square inches of property on the sidewalk, he makes that feel very real.

Werman: So take us to our next stop, up into the Himalayas. 'The Snow Leopard'  by Peter Matthiessen, which came out in 1978.

Iyer: This is a description of a trip that Matthiessen made. He traveled into inner Dolpo, which is an almost unseen, still to this day, very little visited, part of Himalayas. And he was going with the biologist George Schaller, in the hopes of seeing a very rare snow leopard. But beyond all that, just before he took off on the trip Matthiessen had lost his young wife, Deborah Love, to cancer. So he was also traveling into anguish and anger, and trying to come to terms with this loss.
And for me, I think the best travel books always trace a physical and a kind of metaphysical journey at the same time. On the one hand you're journeying into this crystalline radiant part of the world that most of us have never seen. On the other hand you're journeying into how to make sense of somebody suddenly gone from your life forever.

Werman: And armchair travel classic. Finally, summer means baseball of course. Let's go to a baseball game in Japan. You're last recommendation is 'You've Gotta Have Wa'  by Robert Whiting.

Iyer: What's particularly good about this book is that he describes what happens to American baseball players when they go over to Japan. Usually sluggers age 37, 38, who go there and strike out half the time and hit home runs the other half of the time, and on the one hand are great heroes, on the other hand are sort of seen as barbarians. And the title 'You Gotta Have Wa,'  refers to the Japanese word for harmony, wa. And Japan itself sometimes is known as the land of wa, the place of harmony where everybody lives by the same rules and they all know how to get on with one another. And you can imagine into this suddenly comes an almost washed up slugger from the Atlanta Braves or the Milwaukee Brewer's who's really being hired for his individual talents, not for his talent with harmony. I've lived in Japan on and off for 25 years, and if ever you want to understand Japan's relations with the rest of the world, this is a lighthearted, but I think very discerning, way to get at that.

Werman: Yeah, I mean the fact that you live in Japan means that this isn't exactly an armchair trip for you, but I'm curious, how often do you go to a baseball game in Japan? And is that a trip into or out of Japanese culture for you?

Iyer: Deeply into, but it's into the part of Japanese culture that most of us might never suspect exists, because Japanese fans are more passionate than people in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. They're extremely exuberant. They have a special song and dance for every player who comes up to the plate which they perform every time he comes up there.

Werman: Wow.

Iyer: And so to this day when friends are visiting Japan I say the first thing to do is to go to a Japanese baseball game because it's nothing like what you anticipate. And the second thing might be to read this book.

Werman: So we land, Pico Iyer, on 'The Man Within My Head,'  your latest book. You discuss another great traveler and writer, Graham Greene. Talk to me a bit about this man who's inside your head. How'd he get there in the first place?

Iyer: I think anybody who travels and finds himself in a foreign hotel room, completely disoriented, and yet drawn in by what he can't understand, instantly feels that the person next to him in that room is Graham Greene. I think he's the patron saint of the lost traveler, and he's the companion of all of us drawn to the places we probably shouldn't go to.
So I think it was when I started going to Saigon, and Havana, and Port au Prince, and South Africa, and interesting places in the world, I found that he'd always been there before me, and somehow 50 or 60 years ago caught some aspect of that place that never changes.

Werman: I have one last question for you. It's also about traveling, specifically your travelling as a frequent flier. You're the master of frequent flier miles it seems. How many miles do you have?

Iyer: Well, I won't convict myself by admitting all of it, but over a million miles.

Werman: Wow.

Iyer: And I often think, you know, whoever came up with that system deserves a place in the business hall of fame because I often will take flights on airlines I know I don't like just in order to accumulate more miles. You know, six days in hell, get the seventh day free, sort of. It's a funny system but it's got me hostage to it.

Werman: Do you have a special trade secret that you can reveal on how to get more miles.

Iyer: No, I would just say I will always fly with an airline that's affiliated to my program, even if it involves flying from Boston to New York via Siberia or Buenos Aires.

Werman: Frequent flier miles tips from Pico Iyer, writer, traveler. His latest book is 'The Man Within My Head.'  Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Iyer: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.