Diary of a roving dreamer: 'The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise' book review

A book about circumambulations around the globe in pursuit of a single geographic location that has it all

author_img Nandita Bose Published :  19th February 2023 06:00 PM   |   Published :   |  19th February 2023 06:00 PM
The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise

The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise

Reading Pico Iyer is an immersive experience.

His books are as much travelogue, as they are traveling with a philosopher of monuments, spaces, and ideas. The author is a guide—not through cities and nations, though he does offer insights into how places are to be experienced—but through the intricate processes of learning and creating a life of the mind. Even as he embarks on a quest for the intangibles, places turn muse or oracle and heap their secrets at his feet.

In its simplest essence, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise is about circumambulations around the globe in pursuit of that single geographic location that has it all. The all-pervading question is: does human experience account for Shangri-La anywhere across the globe? The author’s quest for this imagined hidden land turns almost sacred. And true enough, speaking of the Buddha’s search and subsequent renunciation, his thoughts veer to the spiritual as well: “A true paradise has meaning only after one has outgrown all notions of perfection and taken the measure of the fallen world.”

The quest begins in Iran where gardens created to mimic paradise imply it is beauty that approximates other-worldly domains. Yet he finds other layers in present-day Persia too. Faith and devotion, even when the surroundings are crowded or noisy, move a number of his companions to tears of ecstasy at historic mosques or mausolea of holy men from the past. Another space of collective refuge in Iranian culture is that of poetry that is sung and recited; poetry that offers people an alternate retreat in the works of Omar Khayyam, Jalaluddin Rumi, Ferdowsi, and Hafez.

Comparing experiences from two trips to North Korea, the country’s shunning and deep mistrust of all things foreign, the author posits, is unique to this land. Perhaps it stems from the utter isolation and lack of knowledge of the wonders outside their borders and narrower perceptions. Then Iyer analyses deeper to conclude these boundaries are of the mind since even countries with greater freedoms and more access do not necessarily mean citizens who are expansive, wise, or accepting either.

From Iran to the gardens of Kashmir seems but a short step. Along with the gardens here, descriptions of the centuries-old mosques, beautiful people, the crafts, wares, and honey available to tourists, even laced with marijuana or opium, is the personal history of his mother’s childhood experiences and how until her discovery of Oxford, Kashmir was her private notion of paradise. And this the author deftly layers with its recent history, its descent into violence by forces larger than its people.

Travel tales from Leh and Ladakh entwine with the briefest intuitive biography of the Dalai Lama. The pragmatic leader is conscious of how the geographic isolation of Tibet is of great strength to the inhabitants’ inner lives, yet the same isolation leaves the populace vulnerable in the world’s political arena. The spiritual leader never speaks about abstract terms like paradise or nirvana, opting instead for
a strong streak of practicality. And perhaps the ruse to make life more rich and meaningful is through mindfulness and connection to all aspects of the individual lived experience.

In Sri Lanka, the route through religion comes to the fore. And the giant imprint at the top of an outcrop of rock has been interpreted by Buddhists and Christians, Hindus and Muslims as signs from the theology of each of their faiths. To the author, this is invaluable, for it “was a lesson about our eagerness to project our hopes on what we do not know”.

The travels are fascinating, and Perth, Kosovo, Baghdad, Oxford, Jerusalem, Belfast, the Australian outback, Ladakh, and Sri Lanka, all become temporary homes to the eternal peripatetic, who dissects the varied sights, experiences, colours, and his own temporal observations to capture the spirit of a place. The places then are all inimitable as they are universal. And through it, all is the special emphasis on people and prayer, in other words, what gives them both strength and asylum from the mundane.

Steeped in a lifetime of learning and the minutiae of first-hand experience, Iyer’s writing is so sure that the reader is compelled to come to the conclusion that the elusive paradise may also be a book, one that is so rich and vast.

It is perhaps prophetic that this cycle of seeking and writing comes to a close in Varanasi: a city of fires, Shiva, death, chaos, and an ever-flowing river full of life. It is here that a semi-closure is achieved when the author determines to let life come to him instead of his relentless search for holy places. And in Varanasi, everything is so clear or confounded, so bewildering and yet primal, he sees death too and does not flinch.

The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise 
By: Pico Iyer 
Publisher: Penguin 
Pages: 240 
Price: Rs 599

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