Pico isn't from Malgudi. Nor was his dad- the late Raghavan Iyer. But, back then, Bombay, at least for our clannish Iyerarchy, was still a small place and so my father, being a couple of years younger than Pico's dad, had to hear much kolaveri paternal palaver about the latter's slimness, scholastic achievements and his not needing specs.
However, it was Raghavan's self-confidence- there being no Iyer prodigy higher than himself- which set him apart. Few Indian origin Scholarship winners failed to be overawed or feel uncomfortable when translated to Oxbridge. Even Ramanujan, who was a genius, came to see the shortcomings of his methods and adapted himself to Western Mathematics on the urging of his Guru, Prof. Hardy. On the other hand, it was Chandrashekar's Guru bhakti for Sir Arthur Eddington which placed a restriction on the development of his own theory. Similarly, under the blazing Eye of Tolkein, Naipaul was left blighted by the Shires' dreaming Spires, while Amartya Sen, according to Bhagwati, was intimidated away from his own, presumably Pigouvian proclivities, by Leftist harridans like, the blonde bombshell, Joan Robinson and the bald blancmange, the gorgeous, pouting, Nikki Kaldor.
Raghavan Iyer, however, seemingly effortlessly, gathered up all the glittering prizes, save an All Souls fellowship, without compromising his own atavistic, Adyar, beliefs. Perhaps, the cult of Radhakrishnan in the 1930's, when he was the Spalding Professor at Oxford, boosted Raghavan's self confidence. Equally likely, Raghavan's faith in Theosophy- which found Universal Messiahs in the unlikely shape of Tamil Brahmin shitheads like the two Krishnamurtis- instilled in him a sense of a World Historical Mission. Annie Beasant, after all, had wanted Jeddu Krishnamurti to attend Eton & Oxford- but the boy was too dim. Raghavan, like his son Pico, had no such problem. Indeed, not Oxford, it was New Delhi which posed the difficulty. The India to which he returned had rendered marginal the verbose Theosophical/Servants of India Society Liberalism to which he had pledged an early and spontaneous allegiance.
Later on, Raghavan's move to America might have seemed a flight from, rather than an expression of faith in, his boyhood creed. Even in Careerist terms it seemed retrograde; had he remained in India he might have become Manmohan Singh's boss or, if he'd settled in England, gained a seat in the House of Lords and become a household name as a BBC 'talking head'. But Raghavan had correctly identified California as the happening place and got there as the Sixties began to swing.
The question is whether he had escaped Malgudi or actually, and atavistically, returned to that imaginary and geometrically frustrated topos by way of having failed Bombay, at least the Bombay of the Bombay Plan, by his 'contribution to democratic planning' while Research Chief to the Planning Commission. The reason I say this is because the very year that Raghavan and Nandhini settle in California is also the year Hollywood fucks up, Malgudi's Guide, Raju's metamorphosis into a Mahatma, not to mention, the Mem Sahib, Rosie's, metamorphosis into the bayadère, Nalini- whereas Bombay redeems both R.K Narayan's novel as well as his Swedenborgian barzakh by concretizing it as Limdi- the little town that pioneered Women's education and which set Vivekananda on the path to World fame- and where Chetan Anand had once taught English. In other words, Bombay- I will not say put Malgudi on the map, it was there already, Narayan's talent is unquestionable- Bombay connected Malgudi to everything else on every map of India- Rosie to Gulab (that was name of Waheeda Rehman's character in the immortal 'Pyaasa'), Rosie/Nalini to Rukmuni Arundale, Scripture to Forgery, India's good behavior in the British Prison to its early release from the sort of famine Pearl S Buck chronicled (well, except for that experienced during the tenure of Muslim League Govts in Bengal and Punjab- the food surplus state refusing to sell grain to the food deficit province- the Muslim League having disdained both British Prison and good behavior), and finally early release from this Earthly Prison to the release of waters from clouds of Krishna hue which, verily to view, is the darshan of all release.
What of the Hollywood version?
I found this on the web- 'Whereas the backdrop is authentic, the romance of a provincial Indian tourist guide with the dancing-girl-wife of an older merchant seems partly artificial and contrived, much more in the Hollywood spirit than in that of, let us say, Bombay. And the development of the narrative continuity is so erratic and frequently slurred—so clumsy and artless, to be plain-spoken—that both story and emotion are vague.'
This is the problem with both Raghavan and Pico. When Nandhini Nanak Mehta/Iyer writes something she may get her facts wrong or her judgement may be faulty but what she says is meaningful precisely because it isn't vague, if not vacuous.
Her husband and son, on the other hand, though not charlatans- 'the background is authentic'- yet make the romance of dialogue- and travel is a dialogue, dialogue is travel- seem 'artificial and contrived'- something much more in the Hollywood spirit than in that, certainly, of Bombay. It is the deficit in continuity, of connectivity, which mars their Art- I will not say Thought for neither has had an original thought- it is not that they do not subscribe to a Grand, or merely garrulous, Narrative, nor that their emotions remain unengaged - it is that both are nebulous and therefore without nuance.
This is Pico writing about R.K Narayan-
In the light of the above, Raghavan Iyer must actually have been, to his son, a particularly cancerous hypertrophy of a R.K. Narayan character.
He did unexpected things- he became a lion-tamer and married a tightrope walker- or, no, he became a Rhodes Scholar and married a Gujerati- same difference really- but the fact remains that his inner life retained the sort of synoecist legibility, or collocational familiarity, of a Malgudi character and, as such, ought to have interested- by being the reverse of interesting- Graham Greene in the sense of affording him a dimly nitid cameo for one of his dingily gaudy Entertainments- like the Indian 'Mass Observation' volunteer in 'the Confidential Agent'.
Pico, of course, is the opposite of a 'Mass Observation' volunteer- having successfully fed a Mass Market taste for vicarious explorations of Observation's vacuity- and he takes Greene as a sort of literary father figure because he wishes to affirm the Theosophical, or, Obeyesekere 'Small-scale Society', truth that reincarnation means one becomes one's own Dad and so- since R.K Narayan's dad too was a Headmaster, and since all Iyers are R.K Narayan characters, and since Character and Inwardness and Thought and other such shite is merely Samskara, and since only pi jaw is eternal- it therefore follows that everybody is everybody and has a Global Soul and it turns out Greene was just the timid son of a Tamil headmaster who became a lion-tamer or trapeze artist in Lawley Extension and so, obviously, his books are all about fathers and sons and how- ever since the Brits chivied the Iyers out of their village agraharams- where, like Bihari Brahmins of the best stripe, they had previously spent their time cracking each other's skulls open with farm implements- it's like there's this hiatus valde deflendus between them if, but only if, both son and sire are the sort of little shits who get scholarships and publish worthless books because otherwise they could spend their time taunting each other for not getting scholarships or not securing Publishing deals for their worthless books.
For Greene, for Waugh, Catholicism meant the World mattered because, as do families in the father, the World can find a Center, and since their travels in the wastes and the wilds had shown them that that Center was Everywhere, it therefore followed that the Father has a Son whose Passion is unspent and so writing is the ongoing project of inventing everybody's lost childhood for it is only in the concurrency of that alterity, as of Judas's lost boyhood, that Christ, that is everybody, has already been betrayed.
For Raghavan and Pico, nothing has a Center because Eternal Recurrence makes everything the same. Pi jaw's Palingenesia ensures that samskars remain merely samskars, they never become stigmata, and are thus unconnected to Grace. At least, this is true with respect to the sort of samskar we term literary writing- which of course is only reading. Here, it makes for a facility without felicity, a yeasting without yearning, Polonius's Annunciation as opposed to Hamlet's Himmelfart.
And, no, since you ask, I haven't read Pico's book. Silly question. But I did read this-
'the father's last phone call to the son consisted of an answering-machine message racked with sobs, left in response to 'Sleeping with the Enemy'- an essay by Iyer on Greene. Greene's great gift and his fount of despair, Iyer had written in that piece, was his ability to "see the folly and frailty of everyone around him"-
'and then his voice gave out and he began to sob. I couldn’t ever remember hearing him sob before, least of all over an answering machine. It was a shocking thing, to hear a man famous for his fluency and authority lose all words.”
Father and son had one brief subsequent meeting. “Ten days later, he was dead, at sixty-five, and the last real time I’d heard from him was the gasping call about Graham Greene.”
As he was finishing his non-memoir, Iyer found himself unable to explain to his wife, Hiroko, which man within his head he was addressing. He concludes that he knew — or knows — Greene better than his own father and that Greene knows Iyer better than Iyer knows himself.
That reads a bit too neatly.
What resonates is Iyer’s response when asked to cite a Greene passage that stays with him, emotionally.
His choice: the last line from A Quiet American: “Everything had gone right for me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”
It's an odd choice or a clever-too-clever one. For Greene, for Graves, for Le Carre's 'Naive and Sentimental Lover', the elimination of the sexual rival is the collapse of Adultery's trisexual house of cards- every arrested adolescences's last defence against prospering in Realty's Potter's field- but there's always someone you can drunk dial and say you are sorry to- well, at any rate, Raghavan managed it because by a splendidly Iyeronic atavism he had Theosophised his wife into the Goddess- Gandhism having foreclosed that possibility for his own Mum- and thus reverse Oedipalized Pico's conception.
| 'A couple of days before I began reading The Man Within My Head, a friend told me she had met the author’s father, Raghavan N Iyer, many years ago. At that first and only meeting, the celebrated philosopher, Oxford University professor and theosophist told my friend that he had abstained from sex until his wife was ready to conceive. He wanted to ensure that the product of their union would be exceptional, he said. The result was their only child, Pico Iyer.'|
In every act of abstention or indulgence, there is a man within us that is angry with us. Perhaps, a Divine satire upon a diabolical satyriasis, Graham Greene- who feared his Anglo-Indian doppleganger, a vulgar con-man named Meredith de Varg, because to meet your double is to die- doubles for Pico as the unquiet ghost in the geometrically frustrated triangle between this chaste-all-too-chaste Iyer father and son.