July 27, 2021
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'I Clutch My Hours To Me'

The itinerant author of, most recently, Abandon, reflects on the inequities of today's 'us-versus-them' world and says he is 'greedy with time, parsimonious in handing it out, miserly in hoarding it.'

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'I Clutch My Hours To Me'
'I Clutch My Hours To Me'

Pico Iyer has variously described himself as "a global village on two legs", and as "a mongrel", one of a growing number of global souls who exist in many cultures at the same time. Born in England to Indian parents, he went to California when he was fairly young and was later educated at Eton and Oxford. A former essayist for Time magazine, Pico Iyer has travelled to some of the remotest parts of the world - places that are "falling off the map" - and has borne witness to emerging "global cultures" and, equally, to striking income disparities.

His reflections find expression in his books - among them, Video Nights in Kathmandu (1988), The Lady and the Monk (1991), Falling Off the Map (1993), Cuba and the Night (1995) and The Global Soul (2000) - which have won critical acclaim for "elevating travel reportage to new heights". His most recent work, Abandon (2003), is a thriller that is centred around an ancient Sufi manuscript; his next book, which will be out next year, is about his travels to some of the poorest places on earth "at a time when the US was basking in a cocoon of delighted prosperity."

In this interview to V. Venkatesan, Pico Iyer reflects on the inequities of today's "us-versus-them" world. Excerpts:

As an observer of and commentator on the human condition in different parts of the world, what, in your view, keeps some countries poor and others rich?

In financial terms, my sense is that the distribution of wealth, unequal as it is, is self-perpetuating, and, especially in a linked and accelerating world, the rich get ever more quickly richer while the poor get ever more speedily poorer. Three American individuals famously have the same net worth as 48 whole nations of the world; and even within America itself, for all its prosperity and egalitarianism, one individual (Bill Gates) has the same net worth as perhaps 100 million others (themes I investigated closely in my book, The Global Soul),

At the same time, I have always been inclined to see richness inwardly and to measure it by other means - and to wonder, as everyone from Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama has done, why countries like the U.S., for all their material wealth, seem often so desperately impoverished within. If we want to talk about Gross Natural Product, we have to talk about the King of Bhutan's index of Gross National Happiness, too. Certainly I have found, as many travellers before me, that people in the poorest places are often the readiest to shower me, from an affluent country, with hospitality and kindness. And as one who's been fortunate enough never to have financial worries, I've been humbled and sobered to travel around a world where so many are living in desperate need, and reminded daily how lucky I am.

By way of example, I spent New Year's in 2002 in La Paz, Bolivia, feeling that at a time when so many were thinking and talking of war, in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington, I would rather be in a town named for peace. And by some measures, Bolivia suffers from the worst rural poverty in the world, and the central slum surrounding La Paz is the fastest-growing city in South America, an all too literal stain spreading across the sunlit valley. But spending some weeks among the Bolivians, I did not come away with a sense of poverty or even need, very often; indeed, their needs did not always seem more urgent than those of the people around me in affluent California. And their kindness and calm were a daily treasure.

As someone who's observed and commented upon various economic models, would you say, from your experience, there is any one model that delivers the merits of free enterprise without compromising on human values or giving way to economic exploitation?

I think it's in human nature to want to have more, to compete with the other and, at some level, to be dissatisfied if someone else has more than you. As they used famously to say in the Soviet Union, "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is the opposite." My experience, from observing various kinds of systems, is that systems themselves, all political entities, encourage the worst in man; but that individuals and humanity itself sometimes comes upon something better. The nature of a system is to encourage thinking about "us" and "them" (even if it's a system that preaches the equality of all beings); the nature of thinking and nuanced individuals is to think in terms of "us" being all but indistinguishable from "them."

You've recorded striking images of economic disparity during your travels - of conspicuous consumption as well as of abject poverty...

I spent a lot of time around Atlanta during and before the Olympic Games in 1996, and I'll never forget standing outside Martin Luther King's home on Auburn Avenue, listening to his great cries for brotherhood and universal responsibility while people all around me wandered, dazed, through a neighbourhood where most of the shops were boarded up and most of the windows shattered ("Freedom Walk Ends," said the sign on the pavement). There were no lines on the street, and there was absolutely no sense of society or order; and ten minutes' walk away, down the very same street, were visible the great towers of the global economy - a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a huge conference centre, a 71-storey Westin Hotel that is by some measures one of the tallest such structures in the world.

It seemed to me a poignant image of the way much of the world is going: a few sleek high-rises soaring into the 21st century, and linked to global markets everywhere, and all around them a wasteland and a wilderness no better off than it might have been at the time of Jesus or the Buddha. At the time I was visiting, 43% of Atlanta's children were living in poverty and 14,000 homes downtown lacked even telephones. And this was during a period of unprecedented prosperity for the U.S., by some measures the most affluent society history has ever seen, and at a time when all the billboards being erected for the Olympics were singing of universal brotherhood and the global village. The poverty one still sees in America today is more shocking to me than anything I have seen in Ethiopia or Calcutta or Manila, and has made me, as someone living in a society of great wealth and someone who's never had to worry about the next meal, think seriously about what universal responsibility really means. If, at some level, we truly are living in a global neighbourhood, then we must remember that our neighbours' problems are our own.

You have lived "in interesting times" in Japan: during a period of economic boom and, now, of severe economic decline.

The resilience, the determination and the stoicism of the Japanese are some of the qualities that drew me there, and from which I hope to learn.The economy in Japan has been unravelling for many years now, and yet you see far fewer signs of desperation and decay than in the States, or in many more prosperous places. The Japanese excel at keeping up appearances, putting a brave face on things, and taking hopefulness to be the first step to making the hopes come true (they are also guided by a deeply Buddhist sense of impermanence and the reality of suffering). So in some ways they have taught me to think of "depression" differently, and to learn to construe it more subtly than I might in California.

I do not see many signs of economic panic or despair in Japan. People think more prudently about their futures - graduating college students, for example, more readily join the government now, because of some sense of job security there, and people take trips at home more than abroad. At the same time, the Japanese are a famously prudent people with a great gift for savings, and a keen sense of the long term. As I'm sure you know, there are no cheque-books in Japan, and until recently even credit cards were not in common use; the absence of crime means that people think nothing of walking around with $2000 or more in their pockets. There is still a sense of trust in so unified and self-enclosed a society.

What has always impressed me about the Japanese is that they have so clear a sense of the difference between public and private responsibilities (and selves). To this day, most of the people I see in the streets of Kyoto or Nara are very expensively dressed, and pouring in huge numbers into exorbitant boutiques or tea-rooms where they will pay 300 rupees for a cup of tea, however tiny and straitened their rooms behind closed doors might be.

As a writer of travel literature (and, now, a work of fiction), your biggest "economic asset" is perhaps your "intellectual capital" - by which I mean the cumulative of 'knowledge', 'perspective', and a highly evolved literary skill. To that extent, do you feel you are better equipped to survive in what is widely called today's Knowledge Economy?

Actually, no. I have never been on the World Wide Web, I have never used a cellphone, I don't make investments and I live a very long way from the Knowledge Economy, I think (feeling that I have too much information as it is, and I wish to live as far as possible from data, while also feeling, as someone who wants to see and understand the world, that I don't want to be screened in, and don't want to take it in at second-hand through the screens of computers or televisions).

To this day, therefore, I live in a two-room flat in rural Japan without a bicycle or car or television or printer. I don't want my sense of a Knowledge Economy to obscure my interest in a Wisdom Economy, and I believe that the ultimate luxury is being able to do without as much as possible. So while you're right to suggest that a writer is potentially in a strong position in an economy in which information is prized, I am a writer who feels that information can obscure as much as it reveals, and that the quantity of knowledge available today is a poor substitute for quality.

What are the significant money values that have shaped your life?

I have always considered, as suggested above, that the ultimate luxury is peace and quiet, and that the resources I most prize are invisible.In that respect my inspirations, since boyhood, have been Emerson and Thoreau, especially, and such latter-day successors as Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. So I have always lived relatively simply -- I have never owned a piece of property, I left my job with Time magazine in Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan to live in a single room in a Kyoto guest-house with two toilets and two showers shared among fifteen residents, the car I drive in California today is a rickety bottom-of-the line 1995 Toyota without air-conditioning or power steering or even a mirror on the passenger side.

As a writer, of course, I'm not in a position to earn much money, and have to write at least sixty articles a year just to pay the bills (the books I write are simply labours of love, since they make almost no money). But over and above this, I have always wanted to fill my head with something other than money, and so more or less keep my money in a savings account in the bank and regard it as something to think about as little as possible.

As one who was educated in expensive private institutions - Eton, Oxford and Harvard - on scholarship, and as one who has been lucky enough to spend much of my adult life in places not notably affluent (Haiti, Cambodia and Tibet), I've been able to see both extremes of affluence and poverty. And I'm not always persuaded the first are better off. That's why my next book, out next spring, is about travelling to some of the poorest places on earth (Yemen and Ethiopia and Bolivia and so on) at a time when the U.S. was basking in a cocoon of delighted prosperity.

In many ways, I think I'm the very opposite of a financially savvy individual; in financial terms, I'm like a three-year-old at best. Were I even to try to play the stock market, I would be confident in having the Midas touch in reverse. Although I studied economics intensively in school, I scarcely know the difference between a credit and a debit, and, to my embarrassment, cannot understand the simplest economic realities.

What do you consider your most valuable possession?

Time, without question. I have never cared much about money, and have never been in a position in which I have had to think about it very much, either because I have a lot or because I have very little. But I do confess to being greedy with time, parsimonious in handing it out, miserly in hoarding it. My feeling is that money, if lost, can always be got back (I can just work harder, and write one hundred articles a year instead of sixty); but time, when lost, seems to me irretrievable. I clutch my hours to me, and spend much of my time either in a Catholic monastery or in rural Japan as a way to make the day last forever, and to feel that there isn't a single moment of down time (no phone-calls, no errands to run, no distractions) in the day.

Fifteen years ago, I went over to Kyoto to live in a Zen temple for a year. I didn't really succeed in that objective, but when I returned to the California where all my things were, a forest fire came along and destroyed the house and everything in it, with the result that I was swept entirely clean.The day after the fire, the only thing I had in the world was the toothbrush I had just bought in a supermarket (and, of course, my memories and friendships and beliefs--all my invisible assets).I've always regarded that fire as something of a blessing, both in showing me how perishable and fragile are all material things, and in reminding me that, even with no possessions, I have a life that 98% of the people on the planet would envy.

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