The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 20, 2003

Iyer-onic interpretation of mystic Islam
Rajnish Wattas

by Pico Iyer. Knopf. Pages 354. Rs 615.

  Abandon  "Words are important `85 something, more than markings on a page.

You claim them formally, publicly, as if they were your children sent out in this world."

— Pico Iyer

HIS words go out into the world with Abandon, like children doing the parent proud. The prose captures the poetic mysteries of Sufism in a rhapsodic romance and the book has elements of both a love story and a spiritual quest.

Any new book by Pico Iyer — the master of insightful, timeless essays for Time or travel books that make you ‘fall off the map’ — is sure to be greeted with heightened expectations. His favourite and recurrent themes seem to be romance and travel, or rather the romance of travel. He can blend with the exotic, yet be distant enough to watch with a detached eye.

Abandon, his latest journey into the gentle, peaceful world of Sufism, opens a window of light into a dark world, which is getting polarised because of a clash of cultures. He leads the reader to mystical spiritual abstractions. If you are patient enough, the sheen of worldly deceptions fades away to lead to enlightenment. "The cry of the Sufi is, quite simply, the cry of abandoned love. The drive of the Sufis is to find the hidden self, the secret soul, that has the capacity to take us back.`85 Like stars that can’t be seen in mid-afternoon."

It is thus a fascinating tale of the new-age passion of the West for Sufism, told through the medium of a Californian romance and the poetry of Rumi whose current admirers include Deepak Chopra, Madonna, Demi Moore and many other celebrities.

It’s the story of John Macmillan, an English student studying Sufism in California, especially Rumi, the thirteenth-century mystic Islamic poet. While in Damascus, he hears rumours of secret, heretical manuscripts taken away from Iran during the Revolution. Back in California, he encounter Camilla Jensen, a neurotic, wayward girl, who in mysterious ways appears connected to the rare manuscripts. "He is obsessed with the secrets of these ancient works of poetry, and his passion spills over into his new relationship with Camilla." She is secretive about her origins and about her present life. Then, suddenly, a manuscript appears, and Camilla disappears`85!

The academic life on the Californian campus and the descriptions of the tutorials and presentations are so realistic and captivating that they hold the story together like the thread of a rosary binding all the beads of experience and knowledge. Another symbolism employed beautifully is the character of Professor Sefadhi, John’s tutor for his doctoral thesis, who represents the intercessor — a ‘medium’ who shows the way to the Sufis.

John and Camilla’s frequent drives to the hills close to Santa Barbara are an endearing experience. The landscape, misty roads and quaint houses on the way, stand out as markers on the road to romance and self-discovery. "Now and then, at intersections, a church spire poked forlornly through the trees, mocked in some ways by the small, coloured buildings on every side."

Listen to Iyer’s magical description of the seasons, "Early winter was the magic time in California, the days acquiring an edge, a form of sharpness, that they never had in the bleary summers. Voices soft and low in the sweatered dark, heat lamps on the terraces at six o’clock and around everything a kind of definition, a startled clarity, that gave the sunny days more meaning. In winter California became an older place, with secrets."

Pico Iyer is masterful at creating the appropriate ambience. But, perhaps Iyer’s attempt to inject doses of travel writing while describing his hunt for the elusive manuscripts is a bit of an overkill. Nevertheless, the trip to India, to Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, unfolds the quintessential beauty of the places. The visit of John to the Taj, especially to its cenotaphs in the basement, is charged with mystery, theological insights and the spiritual interplay of the ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’. He writes, "The squiggled commotion of non-linear India — surely no clearer when Shah Jahan was on the throne — the building made a different kind of sense. In its way, in fact, it seemed a kind of Sufi parable: while the visitors thronged into the main chamber, bright with lapis and carnelian and jade, letting their voices echo around its great dome, the real meaning of the place was all underground."

A major element of the novel is the way the word "abandon" has been used to convey many shades of meaning, both negative, in the physical sense of abandonment, and positive, in the spiritual or mystical sense. Many scenes in the book take place in abandoned spaces — houses, mosques, the desert — which lend an appropriate sense of unreality.

His descriptions of mosques and places of worship turn into haunting prayers when he writes: "You go into a mosque`85and it’s empty space: water and shadow and light. In the desert, water’s worth more than rubies. The smallest glint of colour almost blinds you. You walk into a prayer hall and it’s so vast, so empty, for all the people praying and chanting and chatting there, that you get swallowed up. You disappear: become a particle of light, a wisp of smoke."

The book is elegantly printed. With a number of allusions in the book to Persian carpets, which necessitate stepping back to look at the work as a whole, to see what the pattern really is, these are apt for the illustration on the book jacket.

One jarring aspect of the narrative is the emotionally overloaded and over-wrought dialogue between John and Camilla, the two neurotic lovers. They could have been leaner.

Abandon is not a racy ‘unputdownable’ thriller — notwithstanding the secret manuscripts. It is like sipping a matured, vintage wine, a spiritual one that flows down gently, and does not need to be gulped. Its gentle, languid cadence leads you to a path of introspection and self-discovery through the vehicle of Sufi poetry. If you can surrender — or rather ‘abandon’ — your false self, the real one awaits you.