“Mr Terzani, you have cancer,” said the doctor, but it seems as if he wasn’t actually talking to me. So much so—and I realised this at once, to my own surprise—that I didn’t get emotional, I didn’t despair. It was as if this whole matter, in the end, was no business of mine.”
So begins Terzani’s book and his remarkable odyssey, at first in search of a cure and then, increasingly, in search of understanding. His journey takes him from his native Italy to, at first, New York for the ‘cutting edge’ in cancer treatment that western science has to offer. In between the spells of treatment: chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, Terzani sets off on travels “with the idea of seeing all the other types of medicines, therapies and miracles that could be of use”.
Travelling was second nature to Terzani, a journalist and writer, who had lived for 30 years in Asia as a correspondent for Der Spiegel. After working in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo and Bangkok and reporting on the Vietnam War, he chose India as his home in 1994. India, therefore, becomes both the starting and end point of his travels, which also encompass his native Italy, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand and the US. The most significant sojourns are in India, at ashrams and Ayurvedic hospitals, visiting practitioners of ‘alternative’ medicine and, finally, a long spell of solitary contemplation in the Himalayas, near Almora.
Without being in the least bit credulous, or abandoning his faith in modern medicine, Terzani occasionally tries the ‘remedies’ offered by various practitioners, but is more interested in collecting stories and experiences than in seeking a miraculous cure. An insatiable curiosity is allied to an openness to new experiences and ways of thinking while retaining a sense of humour that helps him distinguish between the cranks, the charlatans and the genuine believers and seekers of knowledge.
The result is a compulsively readable account, despite its length, full of acute observation, engaging characters and absorbing stories. That the most substantial sections are in India is probably the reason why this translation from the Italian has been published here, with no prior publication history in the UK or the US. A good decision, since this clear-eyed, sympathetic account from a western writer who has immersed himself in local philosophical traditions is a refreshing addition to the literature of the Orient as observed through occidental eyes. The translation, by Felix Bolling, is excellent. It is surprising that an inordinate number of copy errors have been allowed to escape into print.
The gradual transformation that takes place in Terzani as he progresses through his quest is remarkable. From a person who seems to be half hoping for a miracle cure as he sets out to document the external world with journalistic objectivity, he gradually becomes a seeker of internal and eternal truths about life and death, the self and consciousness. After exploring Ayurveda, he learns Sanskrit and Vedanta. From seeking out gurus, he finally gravitates towards solitary contemplation amidst the primal beauty of the Himalayas and arrives at a sense of peace and reconciliation between the consciousness and the external world. As he himself states, “...after a while my journey ceased to be in search of a cure for cancer, and became one for the ‘disease’ which, sooner or later, we all have to come to terms with: our own mortality”.
Terzani died in 2004, within months of the publication of the original Italian version. The publication in India of this translation into English was long overdue and is most welcome.