VIDEO NIGHT IN KATHMANDU – PICO IYER

1. (…) tourists, in a sense were the terrorists of cultural expansionism, what Sartre once called ‘the cool invaders.’ (p.13)

2. – anyone with a credit card could become a lay colonialist. (p.13)

3. The Communist guerrillas in the Philippines fight capitalism while wearing UCLA T-shirts. (p.19)

4. To mention, however faintly, the West’s cultural assault on the East is, inevitably, to draw dangerously close to the fashionable belief that the First World is corrupting the Third. And to accept that AIDS and Rambo are the two great ‘Western’ exports of 1985 is to encourage some all too easy conclusions: the the West’s main contributions to the rest of the world are sex and violence, a cureless disease and a killer cure; that America is exporting nothing but a literal kind of infection and a bloody sort of indoctrination. In place of physical imperialism, we often assert a kind of sentimental colonialism that would replace Rambo myths with Sambo myths and conclude that because the First World feels guilty, the Third World must be innocent – what Pascal Bruckner refers to as ‘compassion as contempt.’ (p.20)

5. In search of a lovely simplicity, Westerners saddle the East with complexities; in search of peace, they bring agitation. (p.21)

6. I found myself spreading corruption even as I decried it. (p.22)

7. As tourists, we have reason to hope that the quaint anachronism we have discovered will always remain ‘unspoiled,’ as fixed as a museum piece for our inspection. It is perilous, howevere, to assume that its inhabitants will long for the same. Indeed, a kind of imperial arrogance underlies the very assumption that the people of the developing world should be happier without the TVs and motorbikes that we find so indispensable ourselves. If money does not buy happiness, neither does poverty. (p.22)

8. Whenever we recal the places we have seen, we tend to observe them in the late afternoon glow of nostalgia, after memory, the mind’s great cosmetician, has softened out rough edges, smoothed out imperfections and removed the whole to a lovely abstract distance. Just as a good man, once dead, is remembered as a saint, so a pleasant place, once quit, is recalled as a utopia. Nothing is ever what it used to be. (p.22)

9. American dreams are strongest in the hearts of those who have seen America only in their dreams. (p.24)

10. The New Yorker disappoints the locals by turning into a barefoot ascetic dressed in bangles and beads, while the Nepali peasant frustrates his foreign supplicants by turning out to be a traveling salesman in Levi’s and Madonna T-shirt. Soon, neither is quite the person he was, or the one the other wanted. The upshot is confusion.

‘You cannot have pineappple for breakfast,’ a Thai waitress once admonished me.

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘What do you have for breakfast?’

‘Hot dog.’ (p.32)

11. I therefore include all the other factors that guide one’s feelings for a place – one’s expectations before arriving, one’s thoughts while leaving and, most important, one’s reflections in all those stray hours at home when a place comes back from afar and one tries and tries to puzzle it out. The final destination of any journey is not, after all, the last item on the agenda, but rather some understanding, however simple or provisional, of what one has seen. (p.35)

12. Yet it seemed to me that the vivid day-to-day account of a journey though Asia, with all its momentary impulses, emotions and excitements, had already been written, and rather well. Readers who wish to savor adventures in the hidden East, recorded with a worldly shrewdness that makes their moments of surrender all the more affecting, can turn to Peter Fleming or Norman Lewis or Robert Byron; those who want a clever and quick-witted jaunt through the Asia of the seventies will find few better companions that Paul Theroux or John Krich; those who seek sensitive and passionate guides to embattled areas of the spirit can visit Ladakh with Andrew Harvey, or Tibet with John Avedon; and those who like to watch the irresistible triumph of sensibility over substance are hereby advised to return, and return again, to S. J. Perelman’s incomparable Westward Ha! (p.35)

13. For it is the first vanity, and goal, of every traveler to come upon his own private pocket of perfection, it is his second vanity, and goal, to shut the door behind him. (p.43)

14. And so, in the darkened, empty hallways of a large railway terminal on a tropical island, at 4:30 in the morning, I was treated to a most persuasive treatise on the two kinds of women, the soft and the hard, as epitomized – so my versatile lecturer told me – by Olivia Hussey and Grace Jones. (p.57)

15. And my greatest problem with Bali was, finally, that it seemed too free of problems. In many respects, it struck me as too lazy, and too easy. A real paradise, I felt, could not just be entered; it had to be earned. A real paradise must exact a price, resist admission as much as it invited it. And a real paradise, like a god or a lover, must have an element of mystery about it; only the presence of the unknown and the unseen – the possibility of surprise – could awake true faith or devotion. (p.61)

16. It was pretty as a postcard, and just about as deep. Only a special kind of person can remain long in Paradise, making his peace with tranquility. Most people, I suspected, took taking it easy pretty hard. Humankind, to invert Eliot, cannot stand too little reality. (p.64)

17. (…) hard-core Travelers felt ‘close to the natives’ only when they were actually close to death. (p.84)

18. I felt that these were days of heaven and I would never know such purity again. (p.87)

19. Tibet, we all agreed, was an inspiration to visit. And yet, if we had been honest about it, it would probably have been better had we never visited it at all. For the airy elevation of its spell tempted us all to overlook the inescapable fact of our presence here: that the Chinese, by most accounts, had decided to open up the ‘autonomous region’ not out of charity, nor out of genuine penitence, but for purely strategic reasons, both military and economic. They knew very well that Westerners could not resist paying any amount of money to penetrate the world’s last secreat, and they were hardly blind to the power of public relations. Thus, by opening up Tibet, Beijing was apparently hoping to give proof to the world of its enlightened tolerance; and by flocking to Tibet, we were in effect giving legitimacy to this show of good intentions. In our determination to be one step ahead of everyone else, we were like the vanguard of some invading army that, by racing ahead, is the first to trip the mines. (p.88)

20. Only those who have money can afford not to think about money. (p.114)

21. Rich enough to go native, the West came East to shed all its belongings, and the East scrambled in the dust to pick them up as they fell. (p.115)

22. There were grand red carpets in the corridors, but they were torn. There were rows of gift-store display cases, but they were covered with dust. There were cavernous banquet halls on every side, but they were crowded with ghosts. Chamber after chamber was haunted by an air of lavish desolation. (p.133)

23. (…) I jounced through the long blue evening. (p.248)

24. Besides, it was always easy to romanticize what one left behind: childhood, or the past, or a country that seemed compounded of both. (p.254)

25. (…) curry-reeking Indians trailing all the possessions of this life and the last one and the one before that. (p.256)

26. And sometime after one o’clock, we wandered out into an evening gentler, more coaxing than any I could recall. The moon was so bright, and so bright the incandescence below, that the sky was the blue of faded denim. It felt like the last few minutes before daybreak, and I almost mistook the only diamond in the heavens for a morning star. Lulled by the sentimental muzziness of the faraway lights, buoyed by the sense of limitedless posibility, I felt like wandering all night.

‘It’s a seductive city.’

‘It’s a degenerate city.’ (p.259)

27. One of the appeals of expatriation, I had always thought, was that it allowed one to treat real life as romantic; abroad, one could credit the lies one saw through at home. But one of the dangers of expatriation, I came to see, was that it tempted one to live the lies that would be seen through at home. Expatriation premitted every john to become a sahib, and every girl to turn herself into le Carré’s Lizzie Worthington, and both of them to flourish their new identities before people who could do nothing but defer. (p.274)

28. Many Brits, I gathered, longed not so much to flee snobbery as to exercise it in a system in which they could at last be on the giving, rather than the receiving, end. Expatriation allowed them to get their revenge on Britain, even as they became more and more British the farther they got from home. Expatriation encouraged them to define themselves by their distance from the world around them, to make their very separation their identity and their exile their home. It did not seem a happy exchange. (p.274)

29. For the sights of India are, to a large extent, the streets themselves, and the streets are chaotic open-air stages presenting life in the raw and humanity in the round. Through the avenues of Bombay stream sadhus and shamans, bullock carts and cows, rickshaws, rusty Ambassadors, turbaned men and veiled women, three-legged dogs, two-toed beggars, buses and bicycles and rites and sights and more people, more soldiers, more cows. Bleeding into this pandemonium is the confusion of the temples – not, as a rule, havens of meditation and quiet, but the Indian compendium all over again, a bombardment of sights and sounds and smells, monkeys, flames, chants, offerings, holy men, pilgrims, wonder-workers, musicians, more rites, more sights, more people. The streets of India are swollen with an embarrassment of riches, a richness of embarrassments. And it is on the streets that millions live, make love, defecate, and die. (p.300)

30. But even they were British borrowings, after a fashion, from American models. America might represent riches, glitz and success, but Britain still had the monopoly on sophistication and class. People spoke of getting a few bucks to buy some fags. (p.322)

31. For after a while, I began to notice that, as the whores were engagingly girlish, the monks seemed endearingly boyish. (p.358)

32. Slowly, I saw, the city would unbutton your beliefs; gently, it would unbuckle your scruples; coolly, it would let your defenses slither to the floor. Buddhism did not forbid pleasure, the Thais kept saying – just the infliction of pain. So why find shame in enjoyment, and why take enjoyment in shame? What is so harmful or unnatural in love? Must sweetness be seen as a kind of laxness? And not see sex as an act of communion?Mai pen rai’ ran their constant refrain. No matter. No sweat. Never mind. ‘Everyone make love,’ cooed sweet-smiling Nitya. ‘What is so wrong? No problem, dahling, no problem.’ (p.359)

33. The one woman who never gives herself away, D. H. Lawrence once wrote, is the free woman who always gives herself up. (p.361)

34. For though it was known as the ‘Land of Smiles,’ the smiles here really gave nothing away.’ (p.361)

35. Girls with dreams trigger daydreams in men, and make them feel like boys again. (p.362)

36. Auden: ‘Men will pay large sums to whores for telling them they are not bores.’ (p.362)

37. The Japanese might drink the same coffee as their American counterparts, and their magazines might boast English titles. But how could one begin to penetrate a land where shame was more important than guilt, and where public and private were interlocked in so foreign a way that the same businessman who unabashedly sat on the subway reading a hard-core porno mag would do into paroxysms of embarrassment if unable to produce the right kind of coffee for a visitor? (p.379)

38. If the test of a first-rate mind, as Fitzgerald once wrote, is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time and still keep going, Japan had the most first-rate mind imaginable. (p.380)

39. The word for ‘different,’ I was told, was the same as the word for ‘wrong.’ (p.381)

40. One sign placed in my Kyoto inn begged of its guests: ‘Please have friendly relations with forgeign people at meals.’ That, I thought, was a peculiarly Japanese request: friendliness was something to be planned and fashioned in advance. (p.388)

41. The French, a shrewd Australian once told me, despise anyone who cannot speak their language; the Japanese suspect anyone who can. (p.389)

42. Thus foreigners were welcomed in Japan, up to a point, but mostly so that they could give external confirmation of the glory of Japan. Like many gaijin, I soon discovered that the Japanese I met almost never asked me about England or America or India, as other Asians might; but invariably, and anxiously, they asked me how I found Japan. (p.390)

Advertisements

About this entry