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Autumn light

Pico Iyer

Published : Saturday, 15 June, 2019 at 12:00 AM  Count : 612
Reviewed by Sheba Thayil

Pico Iyer's measured homage to Japan is also an acceptance of the impermanence of life...
Autumn light

Autumn light

As a passing character in the book who picks up fallen leaves from the cluttered ground, one, two, three, and brings them indoors, so you, too, will have to pan for gold in Autumn Light, Iyer's very own Meditations.
This is for the Quiet Reader, in the twilight of his years, not for those who want to find a piece of their tumultuous heart in someone else's words. It is a measured homage to Japan, served with a side offering of wisdom gleaned through the author's constant travels, and then by halting in the eye of the storm, to find his bearings.
'A piece of Japan'
Iyer has always been an outsider (both a gift and a curse, as Monk, Adrian and not the Dalai Lama who makes an impact in these pages, but just as much a seeker of truth, would say): boarding school in England, work in the States, and 27 years in Japan, how could he not know about impermanence, something underscored in this book. Age makes being on the outside looking in a less romantic proposition, but Iyer tries gamely to find meaning in not belonging.
He may not always convince the reader, but he wildly succeeds in giving us a sense of the country he calls home. See the postmistress who fixes gorgeous stamps on postcards so that "someone unknown... in a distant land can enjoy a piece of Japan"; the beguilingly forlorn quality of Nara where Iyer lives, quite unlike a bright-lights-big-city landscape and more like "an absentminded older brother... pottering around in his garden"; learning that "purity and kindness" need not only be found within the temple walls, or that schoolchildren speak a nation's philosophy when singing "bright though they are in colour, blossoms fall", where American children yell out the Pledge of Allegiance - actually that says a lot about both countries.
Iyer approves of the fact that "sadness... lasts longer than mere pleasure" in the Japanese mind. That seems to be a coping mechanism more than anything else, though; pleasure is never "mere". His abbot friend Roshi himself has a careful list of items he loves, one of whom is Joan Baez, bless him.
Iyer even finds solace in his wife's "emotional efficiency" as she steers her infirm mother to a nursing home, and seems to admire how she "gets on best with people when they are broken." A description that's not very reassuring, surely?
We also need more of an explanation for the brother-in-law's animus, and less of the "enigmatic Chinese sage" who adds nothing to the narrative except a hackneyed turn of phrase.
Ping-pong as a bridge
What does add something is Iyer finding resonance in the thoughts of his long-time acquaintance, the Dalai Lama, who in conversation in the book, stresses universal values and not religion-based paths; quite an admission for the most renowned Buddhist in the world.
Iyer uses ping-pong as another bridge to learning the Japanese way, when to play is not about beating your opponent but "to make sure that as many people as possible can feel that they are winners."
Autumn is a pressing down, not a springing forth, a precursor to the long trek beyond. Surrounded by the elderly, Iyer sees dying itself as an "art we have to master." But how you live may matter more; suffering is life but what, as the Dalai Lama himself asks, do we do with it?
These are not earth-shattering questions. Iyer isn't doing anything unique, not even the age at which he's doing it.
Still, I picked up some leaves of my own.
One: "Change itself is an unchanging truth" is not as interesting an idea as "everything that could be replaced... was, by definition, worthless."
Two: Suicide is like "this inner climate change." Death, and a sense of mortality, is "an argument with reality... you'll never win." Blossoms fall, you see, and while yelling about justice for all is sweet, it's very far from seeing the world as it really is.
Three: When Iyer is on his way to meet workers who are trying to repair the Fukushima power plant, risking their lives, he asks himself how one learns to live "with what you can never control?"

Iyer appears to have done so by accepting change with equanimity, and through social interaction where he is observer rather than active participant.
That's one answer to an existential search we've been focused on since climbing from the primordial swamp. The truth, of course, is that we brought the swamp with us.

Courtesy: THE HINDU

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