No Holiday From The Self
Contradictions abound between philosophy and practice
By Leonard Ng
Losing Oneself in Remote Asia
Zia Zaman’s Losing Oneself in Remote Asia is a slim, little book of about a hundred and sixty pages, by Tangerine Press. Presentation-wise, it’s a fairly typical small press offering: plain white cover with a single photograph of a (Bhutanese?) boy on it, A5-size paper, Times New Roman font. The two maps in the book are blurry computer printouts. It’s simple, unostentatious, down-to-earth, the sort of book one imagines being carried around and written in by earnest backpackers in little travellers’ hostels. The book claims to be “a collection of travel stories... blending mysticism, Eastern philosophy, sharp commentary, and humour.” The perfect fare, then, for peripatetic wanderers seeking to lose themselves (or is it find themselves?) in travel to places which are preferably poorer, less urban, and more exotic (whatever that means) than the places from which they come.
Nothing wrong with any of that, of course: in fact this reviewer’s fairly sympathetic to (though somewhat bemused by) that particular species of traveller, having encountered not a few of them in personal travels through (remote?) Asia. It is one thing, however, to write for such an audience. It is quite another altogether to write like them.
And this is where several of this book’s major problems begin. By and large – though with significant exceptions – it reads like a collection of unedited, spur-of-the-moment journal entries by one of these meandering pilgrims. The urban electronic equivalent would be the print publication of somebody’s blog. This may be deliberate, for Zaman’s philosophy (insofar as I can make it out, for it remains fairly murky throughout) is that the Key is to Just Be; “even on a search for the perfect beach,” he writes, “the story should lack purpose.” Which, I suppose, means it should also lack editing. But that simply doesn’t make for good writing: Zaman’s book goes nowhere in the end, offers nothing unified, provides no new insights. On top of that it’s riddled with misspellings, bad grammar (ah, those darn tenses), misused words, purple prose, stylistic inconsistencies, and the occasional convoluted sentence. For example:
The day was the elephant festival of Ganesh, whose Pop-Art image sports the cover of the journal in which I am writing this account.
Got that one? No? Here’s another:
The shapes are sultry, if a shape could be considered sexy. Of course, it could and it is.
I wonder if he knows that “sultry” refers to an atmospheric quality. One more:
Living in unheated houses, tending fields, ambling in town squares, walking over mountains, these are the simple pleasures of a society in harmony, if you can forgive this trite but apt metaphor.
The triteness is undisputed; the aptness, debatable; the metaphor is nonexistent; and it’ll take a better person than I am to forgive this sort of thing. Most readers, I think, deserve better.
The point I’m trying to make is that from its very first paragraph the book screams, begs, wails while grovelling on its knees: edit me, edit me. This book is painfully in need of some tidying up, some streamlining, some stylistic regularisation. I’m sure the writing of the book was of some use to the author: that is, after all, what a journal is for. But I’m not sure any other reader’ll get anything of value out of it.
Because Zaman writes in clichés, in truisms, and sometimes even in how-to lists; there is little in this book that has not already been said, little that could actually be called insight. Sometimes the book feels like a half-hearted attempt to be “inspirational,” to be a sort of guide to Life’s Bigger Picture, as captured in these simple prescriptions:
These reminders of life’s larger purpose are easily applied to everyday Western life. Stop and be conscious of the simple things that you do without thinking. Breathe in deeply feeling the full capacity of your lungs. Close your eyes and focus on the sound of one man singing amidst a crowded church choir. Be awake. Be selfless in your career, giving of yourself, your time, and your good fortune when it is the least expected. Make giving effortless. Witness beauty and love selflessly. Take the everyday adversities of life in stride, whether it is traffic or financial worry, because the Buddha inside us all can remain unperturbed...
Other times it reads like a guide to How to Save a Buck When in Third World Countries:
At most major tourist monuments and sites, there are two prices. Usually it costs 10 rupees if you’re Indian, 10 dollars if you’re a foreigner. This has become something of a game to me... I have devised a heuristic to increase my chances. Here are five simple rules that give you the best chance of passing. First rule: never be wearing shorts. Shorts, even if they reveal a fine pair of brown legs is the trademark of a Westerner...
Contradictions abound, in this book, between what Zaman declares to be his philosophy and what he actually does. First, the philosophy. In addition to the inspirational commandments quoted above at length, there are a couple of other features, as seen in this passage:
When you can lose yourself and become as simple an observer as the crab, as the palm even, that is the Path. How does the cacophony of those crinkles that the palms emit differ from speech? A person talking, even whispering can get drowned out by the waves and the birds but it is still somehow interrupting. The palm’s song is the percussion, part of the natural scene. It is the scene. It is the splendour of the path. It is this moment in life. And, without hyperbole, it is life.Somewhat convoluted, but the general idea is clear enough. Zaman makes a distinction between the human and the natural world. What the human has to do is sit back, do nothing (if possible, be nothing) and appreciate the Beauty of Nature. This notion is echoed in the way he describes places:
When the sun finally sets, one can see the world of Luang Prabang in a bubbly glow for one last hurrah... The familiar shaded temples become so after just a few hours because they are (almost) ubiquitous. In life, when you get a chance to surround yourself with a combination of subdued natural beauty and unflinching examples of devotion, it humbles you.
Not about you. Not about you. Zaman keeps on coming back to this; it seems to be a cornerstone of his creed. Which is unfortunate, since this entire book is inescapably about him. The book is a semi-memoir, that most narcissistic of genres. But Zaman takes it further. Reading this book, one gets the feeling that Zaman has an urgent, pressing need to always be at the centre of attention. “Maybe I’ll be the first to see the elusive yeti,” he hopes. But Zaman is no simple observer; rather, he is someone who acts, and always in his own interest. And so he regales us with stories about him bluffing his way through the cheap Indian queue at national monuments. He tells us tales of how his crafty bargaining snags him a souvenir stone elephant at less than half-price. About how he, in his “distinctive and debonair” French suit, walks into a Fashion Week event in Mumbai, pretends to work for American cable TV, and successfully chats up one of the models there. About how he cons his way into being given free run of the best private beach in Kerala, using his MNC calling card. How his riding a boat in Allepey results in “many people observing me from the banks with joyous stares... local houseboaters and fishermen all staring in wonderment.” How his Non-Resident Indian accent sends eager Indians to his table to shake his hand in Rajasthan. How, again, the same accent makes him the centre of attention for a group of schoolgirls near Udaipur. How he takes the moral high ground with a writers’ group from the United States. How he forces a boy in Vietnam to accept one thousand dong (about six cents) for a shoeshine instead of one dollar “to teach him a lesson.” The list is seemingly endless. This is no passive observer, not at all. Two main themes run through these adventures. The first is that of fraud, and the second, that of getting the best bargains available. The book cover says he’s a successful venture capitalist. I suppose it shows.
So much for making giving effortless. It’s true that Zaman does experience the occasional scruple –
Do I ever feel guilty that I’m not contributing to the upkeep and maintenance of these sites? These places I so admire depend on tourist fees. Of course, I can afford it. I know I’m being self-serving...
– but when faced with one he rationalises it away pretty quickly:
...but I do spend the money in the tourist trade in the towns, eating, shopping, buying from people and usually not big hotel chains. This way, I hope, my money gets into the hands of the people, whose desire for capitalism and improving the general welfare may help the sites more than anything... Whatever. It’s fun.
Setting aside the mindbogglingly patronising attitude in those lines for now, it really does seem that fun is all the excuse Zaman needs to cheat his way through a situation. It’s not a moral position of which I personally approve; but I’m here to review a book, not to judge its author’s moral standing. So I suppose I ought to reiterate, at this point, that the reason why I bring this up at all is to point out a deeply rooted conflict at the heart of the book – the conflict between what Zaman says he believes in and what he actually does.
This conflict, I suppose, arises out of confusion: this is a person who isn’t sure what he really believes in, between the kind of person he wants to imagine he is and the kind of person he actually is. These aren’t the writings of a person at peace. The conflict leaks onto the page when he least expects it, as when describing Angkor, he writes:
Personally, I feel like a voyeur: spotting butterflies bobbing in Brownian motion, listening to un-Gregorian chants, feeling the spirit of all this serenity. I will steal some right now.
The language is strange, but characteristic of the writer’s inner conflict: where another person might have given us a lyrical description of the tranquillity of Angkor, all Zaman can do is use the language of furtiveness and theft. The author seems to be a businessman who wants desperately to believe money isn’t important to him, to believe that, for him, all that matters is the moment. Perhaps this is why he travels. He seeks a sort of Xanadu where life can go on “without the pondering stigma of capitalism, without the harsh daylight of reality”; he seeks a place where “there is little to distract me from the simple observation of life”. He seems to want to run from the very system that has made him so successful, that has given him the money to lead the kind of lifestyle he does. When, in Vagator, he’s asked what he does, his reaction is telling: “I cringed. I didn’t want to say. I didn’t want to admit it. ‘Let’s just say I’m something else by day, slacker traveller by night’” . He seems to find his working life meaningless, just an awful way of getting him money. “Perhaps my old life has no purpose,” he says, “if not to find real moments like those in Bhutan. It’s like a muscle, travelling. Without the fresh perspective of a new place, a new voice, the imagination atrophies, one’s sense for life crumples”. He conveniently forgets, of course, that the people he idealises as leading the kind of simple life he extols do not travel. Most of them are simply too poor to afford it. And he never seems to realise that his get-what-you-want-as-cheaply-as-possible-no-matter-what way of doing things is a capitalist habit that he’s never left behind, and that wherever he goes, he brings it with him. Wherever he goes, it is capitalism that has brought him there, and wherever he goes, it will be there with him.
But there; the man’s too busy searching for Paradise, some Shangri-la in which he can drink the waters of life at the fountain of immortality. He wants the exotic East. And so, in his travels, that’s how he views the world around him: he wants it unspoilt, undiscovered, untouristy, a place that can be a refuge for him away from the evils of the western world. “The great secret of the natural beauty of Bhutan,” he says, “is that it is almost totally untouched.” Amazing. “But how much longer can it remain this way,” he laments, “with Internet cafes popping up around Thimpu?” He notes with horror that already the monks watch Macy Gray videos on MTV Asia. Paradise has been ruined.
Again and again we find this exoticisation of Asia popping up. He says of a town in Tamil Nadu that “sculpture was in this townfolks’ blood”. In Udaipur he speaks of “archways, so many of them, that remind you that you are in the East”. Kerala is “a sexual place” where “the smell upon the breeze gives the passer-through the tingling sense that it is time to spawn”. Elephant polo, apart from being “really cool,” is “a glorious anachronism which gives the well-heeled tourist a pleasurable and wondrous respite from the wondrous reality of India”. Goa “conjures up illicit images of decadence, hedonism and beauty to which all its visitors surrender”. And so on. In Laos, finally, he declares that “Mornings are lovely in small towns. Especially half-discovered ones where the tourists are still asleep”. Go away, Western world!
There is, however, one place is Asia where he can’t help but deal with the West: Singapore. How does one exoticise a place like this, where the prosaic reality of the workaday world is such a big part of life? Zaman’s answer: fantasise. Suddenly, without any warning, he’s telling us all about his life in Singapore in the year 2005. We’re given descriptions of actual places and events, of bars and the Botanic Gardens and the lantern festival. And then suddenly, an event of tremendous significance: the death of Lee Kuan Yew. He describes the atmosphere. People cry in the streets. An old woman dies of a stroke on hearing the news. “I can read the loss on people’s face,” he says. “It’s a deeper but less personal concern than a family member passing, more like a hopeless resignation without the abject despair.” Even Fidel Castro turns up for the funeral. Eventually this turn of events leads to his firm moving him out of the country, even though “There’s definitely a place for you in the company, maybe even in Headquarters.” Men from the EDB come round to tell him they are “saddened by the loss of someone of your vitality and commitment to the nation.” Make no mistake: this is a work of fiction, and sounds rather like wish-fulfillment. There is nothing wrong, of course, with fiction. The only problem is that this book purports to be a collection of travel stories. And this long tale, given us in what we’d thought all along was the nonfiction section (the book’s final part is made up of what Zaman confesses are invented tales), suddenly throws Zaman’s credibility into question. Suddenly we have to ask: what is real, what is not? In these stories, where does the recounting end and the fantasy begin? Are these stories his own, or has he plundered somebody else’s? How much actual fact is there in these tales, and how much of it is wish-fulfillment (especially since the author keeps intimating to us that he’s always the centre of attention?) We can only speculate. Are these travel stories, or stories about travel? There is a difference, and Zaman isn’t clear on this.
In Zaman’s defence it might perhaps be suggested that this book is an attempt to point out that you can never recount a story from any point of view but your own, and that’s bound to be biased and coloured, due to the weakness of recall and the limitations of language. Perhaps the author is trying to show us that every telling of a tale is always a combination of reality and imaginative (re)construction. Looking at the text again, however, I find myself singularly unwilling to credit Zaman with this level of subtlety. He certainly hasn’t displayed any in all the rest of the text.
So far I don’t think I’ve had anything complimentary to say about the book. Given what the book is like, I think that’s justified. But surely there must be something good, something possibly worth salvaging. And there is. There are places where the narrative is buoyed up by the narrative interest of the story itself, such as his account of the Holi festival in Jaipur, or his crossing of the Pakistani-Indian border, or his encounter with Kiran, a Bhutanese in Nepal. These are places where the author (thankfully) takes a back seat and lets the story speak for itself. They are decent stories. But they are few and far between. They definitely don’t save the rest of the book from being pretty awful, and a waste of time for everyone except for – I hope – the author.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004