An interplay of cultures

I do sociology in school, and for one of our internal assessments we have what is called a ‘book project’: you read one of the prescribed books and try to make connections with sociological theories/concepts learnt in class.

When the teacher brought the books to class, I felt the familiar thrill I get when I see new and colourful books. We were given a chance to skim through as many of the books as we could before indicating our preferred choices. I choose three of them: David Davidar’s House of Blue Mangoes, Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Last Wave and Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu, though I would have been happy to read all of them.
I was assigned Video Night in Kathmandu and I just finished reading it. I really enjoyed the book though there was the constant pressure of it being an academic endeavor and my eagerness to finish the project before others did.

The book is set in the period of 1984-85, chronicling Iyer’s experiences and observations on his travels to different Asian countries and places: Bali, Nepal, Tibet, China, Philippines, Bangkok, Hong Kong, India and Japan. The book mainly concentrates on the interplay of West and East and the resulting aspirations and ambiguities. It also describes the social conditions of various nations in this time period.

Iyer’s amazing skills of observation, sharp, sensitive writing and a dash of humor and emotion make this book the masterpiece it is. He captures the nuances of events and conversations brilliantly. The balance between the three ways through which information is conveyed in this book: descriptions, interactions and reflections is maintained quite well, ensuring that it remains engaging throughout.

I was very disturbed my some of the images Iyer brought alive: The mysterious and widespread prostitution of Bangkok; the ragged poverty and destitution of Manila and the chilling perfectionism and artificiality of Japan. The portrayal of India as a land of mainly superhero movies with no logic was a little slighting. I reassured myself that all of the above were the situations of 1985 and no doubt there had been progress.

All of the characters are common people from different backgrounds and their stories lend authenticity to this book. Quite a few of them stay with the reader afterwards, like Susie, a bar receptionist who desperately wants to pursue higher studies while maintaining her virginity, Maung-Maung, a rickshaw driver who is too good for his surroundings, and Ead, who struggles with the mental battle between her morality and economic pressures.

Iyer describes the impressions he is left with in a remarkable way with beautiful language that makes the reader reflect . I loved in particular his lyrical description of Japan and how he portrays in a lighthearted way, the conundrum, and family ties of India.

The troubles he faces as a traveler are expressed in words that reek of acerbic humor, which works well in making the flow lively Quite a few of his observations are thought-provoking: for example, he says that after returning home, he was the one who felt homesick at the thought of the East, while the citizens there could never let go of the West; and how the East sells its own modified versions of the West back to the West itself.

Iyer’s prose appeals to the visual, auditory and tactile senses, making it easy for the reader to imagine the environments or situations he finds himself in.
I would describe this book as a roller coaster ride, filled with thought and colour. I was also delighted when I found out that Iyer was born and studied in Oxford.