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Bittersweet, if solipsistic, musings on mortality

THE ASIAN AGE. | KUSHALRANI GULAB
Published : Jul 28, 2019, 3:33 am IST
Updated : Jul 28, 2019, 3:33 am IST

Iyer explains what he's doing with his newest manuscript in his usual roundabout style.

Autumn light: Season of fire and farewells by Pico Iyer Penguin Random House, Rs 499.
 Autumn light: Season of fire and farewells by Pico Iyer Penguin Random House, Rs 499.

On pages 179-180 of the e-edition of Pico Iyer's latest book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, there is an exchange between Iyer and his wife, Hiroko, about the very same book before it was completed.

"Your book, nothing happening?" asks Hiroko. Iyer explains what he's doing with his newest manuscript in his usual roundabout style.

“Little no-action movie,” observes Hiroko after listening to Iyer. “Rain come down window. Car stuck in traffic jam. Quiet music playing. Autumn light.”

And there you have the briefest, most succinct description of the book I am now going to talk about for at least 900 words. So if you like, you can stop reading this review right now and begin reading Autumn Light instead. Or you can stop reading this review right now and dive into the latest Jack Reacher novel instead. Or you can carry on reading this review because you’d like to know a bit more about the book and in any case, my editor would whack me if I gave her 164 words rather than the 900-odd we’d agreed upon.

Truly, Autumn Light is a no-action movie with nothing happening. It is simply Iyer reflecting on scenes and events from his life in the present and the past, featuring glimpses of and speculations on the lives of others around him as he tries to come to terms with what a good 50 per cent (at least) of the world’s population is trying to cope with at any time, namely the realities of ageing, dying, and the many meanings of a life that is never static.

This book, therefore, is mainly for middle-aged readers, people who are beginning to realise that their parents are getting older, frailer, and closer to death, that their own bones are beginning to creak and calcium supplements must be consumed on a daily basis, and that things such as sitting down and standing up again, and reading the directions for use on the bottles of their multivitamin capsules are getting harder and harder to do.

This sounds sad, but whether we like it or not, waning is part of living. Fortunately for fans of Pico Iyer’s travel writing, Autumn Light is not vastly different from his other books, especially if you read it from the perspective of L.P. Hartley’s famous quote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” though Autumn Light is not specifically about the past.

Iyer is still travelling in this book, but this time it’s not to a physical place. Instead, he’s heading towards a state of mind that looks back at the ripe summer of maturity while looking forward to a winter of stillness, even as he tries to settle into a period of constant change.

It’s certainly is a foreign country, this autumnal state of mind. Only the middle-aged truly understand it. Those under the age of 40 haven’t a clue that it even exists, those over 70 are usually resigned to battening down against the winter snow that covers the landscape and hides it. Iyer skillfully turns the metaphor of autumn into something that feels real by setting this book in Japan’s own autumn, that period of year encompassing the time between his return to Hiroko from the travels that make his books, and his annual trip to California to be with his elderly mother.

This time, when Iyer returns to Japan, his father-in-law has just passed away, and Hiroko, who works full time, has had to move her mother, who has a faltering mind, to a nursing home where she will be looked after 24/7. Hiroko’s mother wants to be with her daughter, but that isn’t possible. Or she wants to be with her son, who lives close by, but Hiroko’s brother has estranged himself from the family for so long that no one is sure they’d recognise him if they passed him on the street.

Iyer spends a lot of his time playing ping-pong with a group of people in their seventies and eighties. The elders are all much better at the game than he is, far quicker on their feet, and far more flexible than the man who is perhaps 20 years younger than they are. But sometimes, one or the other vanishes. The missing person is in hospital, perhaps. Or at home, nursing a spouse. Or even gone forever. Meanwhile, Iyer also spends time with his stepdaughter, the two of them learning to know each other as adults, and with Hiroko whose boundless energy seems sometimes to flag now that her father’s gone and she contemplates her family’s lives.

And all this is tied into memories of past events, and speculation about possible futures, leading to melancholy and a sense of the bittersweet. History is made immediate when Iyer tries to figure out how old his ping-pong playing pals might have been when atom bombs were unleashed on two of their country's biggest cities, and then there are fantasies when Hiroko’s mother talks about things that never happened. Mysteries deepen — why won’t Hiroko’s brother reconcile with the family, what drove him away? Understanding that middle age is the human season of changes leads to acceptance, which in turn leads to further mysteries — how has Iyer forgotten that he’s made the same observations about a certain subject several times in the past years, each time thinking he’s had an epiphany on the topic?

Autumn Light is a book that can't be described. It will make sense only to people who are naturally contemplative. Nothing happens in this book: the scenes are like still lives. But the people you meet here are never static.

Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea

Tags: traffic jam, autumn light