Iyer-onic view of the foreign 
Rajnish Wattas

Sun After Dark.
by Pico Iyer. Alfred A. Knopf. Pages 223. $12.50.

"I will visit a place entirely other than myself. Whether it is the future or the past need not be decided in advance."

— Susan Sontag.

Sun After Dark.This defines what classical travel writing is all about. And the quintessential Pico Iyer is always on the move in this quest. Gently observing, analysing and interpreting what the eye sees; and also what it does not see. "The physical aspect of travel is, for me, the least interesting; what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know and may never know," writes Iyer.

Followers of Iyer’s books like Video Nights in Khatmandu, Falling Off the Map, Lady and the Monk, Tropical Classical, Global Soul and the latest Abandon, will know that a fascination with the strange and the foreign is a recurrent theme in his works. And he sees with the eye of a pilgrim, a seeker of higher truths, of answers to questions such as how does one reconcile suffering with the sunlight often found around it and how does the foreign instruct the traveller?

As an essayist par excellence — quite familiar to the readers of Time — this book is also a collection of essays that read like musings of a traveller-poet-mystic and, above all, a spiritual seeker trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world.

The book is divided into three parts: Sun After Dark, Flights, and The Foreign. His long conversations with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala are multi-faceted: part answers to meta-physical questions and part responses to the existence of Tibetans in exile and their struggle for regaining their homeland. His portrayal of the world’s most famous monk is wrapped in humane warmth and a keen eye for the irony of his situation; representing the interests of six million exiled people against a nation of 1.2 billion, which the entire world is trying to court.

Similarly the essay on Lhasa, enigmatically titled On the Ropebridge, symbolises the clash and coalescence of the ancient with the modern. "What exactly you believe, and how much, and why, is a question Tibet asks you more searchingly than any place I know. It’s part of what travel involves everywhere — the stepping out of the bounds of what you know...

Iyer’s explorations of what is foreign and what is not are touched with rare personal emotion. This is especially apparent in his observations of the beautiful relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, which he observes in his chosen homeland of Japan.

In a remarkable essay on being jet-lagged — a state in which one experiences an eerie other-worldliness — is captivating. Who has not experienced the terrible ‘hangover’ of global travel? But it takes a Pico Iyer to turn this feeling into a literary delight.

For all Kazuo Ishiguro’s fans still savouring his Booker-Prize-winner Remains of the Day, Iyer’s review of the Japanese author’s oeuvre of English works with its near-perfect of prose and observations of the minutiae of English life, is a reconciliation with and assimilation of the foreign with the local.

Iyer has the rare gift of combining the sublime with the ridiculous. His comical — yet very symbolic — jottings of road signs that dot every Indian highway make you feel as if you are on the home turf, but try seeing it from the foreign eye. And Iyer, born of Indian parents, with schooling in Britain and homes in California and Japan, is surely the ultimate global soul qualified to make these observations. "India is the most chattery country in the world, it often seems, and it comes at you in almost two hundred languages, one thousand six hundred and fifty-two dialects, and a million signs that scream from every hoarding, car hailer, and passing shop... We passed a "Textorium" as we jangled into town, and a Toilet Complex. We passed the Clip Joint Beauty Clinic, the Tinker Bell Primary School, and Nota Bene "Cleaners of Distinction.""

Pico Iyer combines the pleasures of cosy armchair travel with the introspections of a monk. Sun After Dark promises to be a collector’s item for his fans. If the fast-changing world bewilders you, do not despair, there is light after dark, both literary and divine.