“I cannot live with You –”, Emily Dickinson insisted, almost 150 years ago, addressing an unnamed beloved, implying that life and love, in the mortal realm, were only transient and true meaning could only be found in gaps and ambiguities:

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –  

Is there paradise?

Pico Iyer’s search of paradise in The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise seems to explore a similar intellectual truth. “A true paradise has meaning only after one has outgrown all notions of perfection and taken the measure of the fallen world,” he writes. Defined most accurately by flux, “paradise” remains a shifting category, a sort of thought experiment, found variously in the stateliness of nature, in walled gardens, in poetry, in discovering the wonder within the moment, in the midst of life as it happens but also in mediation with death.

Meaning, like for Dickinson (one of the many literary voices Iyer refers to in the book), hides in gaps and ambiguities.

The narrative opens in Iran, an Iran that defies the author’s imagination with its Swarovski and Yves Rocher boutiques, pop music streaming through lobbies of luxury hotels, its optical “sameness” to urban spaces everywhere else clearly on display. This is an Iran suffused with poetry and immersed in faith, and yet, critical of religious rule and the everyday oppressions it has validated. Looking at the obvious contradictions that define life in Iran, he writes, “That seemed to be the Iranian way: to undermine every certainty and recognise how every presumption was provisional.”

Iyer’s narrative, in no obvious chronological sequence, traces multiple such contradictions in the places he visits and the people he encounters. Moving from Iran to Ireland, on to Kashmir, stopping over at Jerusalem, negotiating the innermost spaces of Australia, exploring gompas at Ladakh, wandering through multiple locations in Sri Lanka, taking pause at a solemn cemetery in Japan, it closes, fittingly, at Varanasi, that city that functions as a “crossing-ground,” a space for embracing all that lies outside of earthly existence and quotidian cognition. Iyer’s search for the meaning of paradise segues seamlessly with the search for meaning itself, as he takes the reader on a complex journey that seems intent on deconstructing the idea of perfection, of gaining absolute knowledge, of ever finding that elusive paradise.

Conflict zones, divisions, contrasting ideologies

At the heart of the book is a premise that Iyer lays down just a few pages into the book: “what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict – and whether the very search for it might not simply aggravate our differences.” In a world where travel is quite so commonplace and where even a global pandemic has not deterred people from wanting to see more, to collect more experiences, to consume more art and culture, Iyer proposes a challenging model, one that involves immersion into what is often uncomfortable, provides no instant gratification and asks more questions than it answers. “Giving up one’s preferences, I gathered, was the first step towards liberation,” he writes, while at the Koyasan mountain in Japan. This same idea seems to follow him through the many geographies and histories of conflict that the reader traverses with him.

In Kashmir, he witnesses beauty and hope for a stable, peaceful future, but also the palpable presence of violence, the threat of exile, and strict state control. Jerusalem throws at him a multiplicity of faiths and concomitant violence. Broome, in Australia, makes him aware of his status as an outsider and his inability to be present in any capacity other than that of an interloper. Sri Lanka exhibits more turmoil and unresolvable ethnic tensions. The reader is not allowed the luxury of settling into any degree of comfort with the history/beauty/spirituality of the places the author is taking us to. We are, instead, witness to the unease of what capitalism has often dressed up and sold as the dream of global

Iyer’s young guide at Jerusalem posits an answer of sorts when he says that this conflict – between people inextricably connected to each other – is not a problem to be solved but an issue to be lived with. Iyer makes a nuanced comment on the role of the writer in conflict-ridden societies when he says, “Troubled places often look to writers in the hope that imagination can see beyond the divisions that ideologies enforce; the writer’s job, after all, is to dismantle the very notion of an Other by showing how your hurts belong to me, as my hopes do to you.”

The interconnected, labyrinthine world Iyer inhabits is also one that reflects reality minus any filtered smoothness. Iran embodies disquiet. A young man who drives him around for an evening turns out to be a refugee to Britain who makes covert trips back to his home country annually to meet with his family and stay connected with his hometown. In Kashmir, he meets Johnny, a tourist who lost his girlfriend to an unexpected illness and despite his tragedy, adopted this new space as his own. Charles Carmichael, bi-racial but without any advantages that accrue to others of his ethnic identity in Sri Lanka, tends to a cemetery and is the custodian of a micro-history. The writer routinely runs into those on the fringes – the outliers, the rule-breakers, scholars, artists, everyday people – who deftly balance living within contradictions with defying strictures of state control. Iyer also writes, appropriately enough, in the current political climate, of surveillance states and the ways in which censorship and control define public as well as private lives.

The Half Known Life is not the sort of book you devour in one sitting, It is a volume that needs to be savoured, bit by thoughtful bit. With a little dismantling of genre-fixities, we might read the book as memoir as also travel literature, when travel is meditative, instead of a compulsive checking of boxes, a slowing down and allowing oneself to sit in stillness instead of a frenzied capturing of all shades of the same sunset, a process instead of a destination. To borrow from Iyer, “to travel is to plunge into the unknown”, and this is exactly what the book encourages the reader to do – to unravel the unknown, to negotiate the unfamiliar, to attempt to see patterns that connect places and connect people, even in times of unceasing conflict.

The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, Pico Iyer, Penguin.