Pico Iyer, Video Night and Indians

Pico Iyer gets India so right in Video Night in Kathmandu. He is spot on about Indians being allured by America but many of them being Anglophiles, too, in the 1980s.

Published in 1988, the fruit of the author’s Asian journeys in the mid-1980s, the book harks back to a vanished world when Rambo was the biggest blockbuster and Michael Jackson ruled the airwaves. But some things haven’t changed. Bollywood still makes more movies than Hollywood and Indians still use British spelling till they go to America.

Born in Oxford, and educated at Eton, Oxford and Harvard, Iyer cuts a wide swathe through Asia, from Nepal to Japan, in Video Night. But he has a home ground advantage writing about India, being an ethnic Indian with relatives in the country.

Bollywood looms large in the chapter on India, titled Hollywood in the Fifties. The author compares Bollywood to old-time Hollywood. He writes:

If the Indian industry was Hollywood made thirty times larger however, it was also Hollywood turned back thirty years. For one thing, its production musicals still operated on a superstar system, still revelled in Busby Berkeley-style showstoppers and still favoured grand themes with epic casts.

He expatiates on the themes, production methods and the international popularity of Bollywood movies. He waxes eloquent on Amitabh Bachchan and talks to the producer Romu Sippy.

But I was more interested in what Iyer has to say about Indians being attracted to both America and Britain. He describes the dilemma:

For much of the world, India remained the greatest symbol of the British Empire. Yet modern India, especially under Rajiv, was hell-bent on following the way of the future, generally considered to be the American way. More even than Hong Kong, therefore, India, great amalgam of a hundred races and religions, was torn not just between tradition and modernity, but, more specifically, between the British and the American empires. To paraphrase one of the country’s most-quoted heroes, Matthew Arnold, India was caught between two worlds, one dying, the other struggling to be born.

This strange sense of divided loyalty informed every aspect of middle-class city life. My college-age cousins spent much of their time trying to get hold of records by Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Simon and Garfunkel; yet when it came to reading, they clearly felt most comfortable with PG Wodehouse and CP Snow.

But he adds:

In time, of course, this mix was beginning to change, and India seemed in its slow and elephantine fashion, to be sloughing off some of its musty Edwardian past and taking on more of the bright new futurism of America. Thirty years ago, a British accent might be the main selling point in a negotiated marriage; now the best draw of all was an American green card.

India wasn’t alone in succumbing to the allure of America. The US of A had the entire world under its spell in the mid-1980s, when Iyer was knocking about Asia in his late twenties. In Love Match, the first chapter of the book, he writes:

As I crisscrossed Asia in the fall of 1985, every cinema that I visited for ten straight weeks featured a Stallone extravaganza…

Rambo had also, I knew, shattered box-office records everywhere from Beirut to San Salvador. But there seemed a particular justice in his capturing of Asian hearts and minds. For Rambo’s great mission, after all, was to reverse the course of history and, single-fisted, to redress America’s military losses in the theatres of Asia. And in a way, of course, the movie’s revisionism had done exactly that, succeeding where the American army had failed, and winning over an entire continent.

Iyer concedes:

Not all the incoming forces, of course, were American. Mick Jagger was as much the poet laureate of the modern world as Michael Jackson, and Sophie Marceau vied with Phoebe Cates as the poster queen of Southeast Asia. If Bruce Springsteen turned out to be unexpected travelling companion across the continent, so too did the British group Dire Straits… And the back roads of Asia were far more crowded with Canadians and Germans and Australians than with Americans. But still, when it came to movies and TV, the United States remained the Great Communicator.

He adds:

Everywhere, in fact, dreams of pleasure and profit were stamped “Made in America”. Cities from San Salvador to Singapore turned themselves into bright imitations of Californian, not Parisian or Liverpudlian, suburbs… The hymn of the East Side, as well as the West, was still: “I Want to Live in America.”

American soft power may still be potent as ever, firing a million dreams worldwide. But the times have changed, technology has changed, and other singers have picked up the mantle from Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen. And only oldies remember Rambo.

Iyer himself notes how the world has changed since he wrote the book. In his Afterword to the Vintage Edition, written in December 2000, he declares:

When I was travelling through Asia in the mid-1980s, it was easy to believe East and West were on opposite sides of the globe, not a great deal closer than in Kipling’s time…

Now, of course, all that has changed…

But then he adds:

And yet, below the surface of our latest toys, I wonder how much any of the cultures I was visiting have really changed, deep down.

He goes on to note the timelessness of India:

Whenever I return to my parents’ homeland, India, I am startled to see ads for cell phones and computers and multinational colas tower over the car (and bullock- and bicycle-) filled streets, and I hear that when graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology want to hold a reunion, it makes more sense for them to do so in Silicon Valley than in Bangalore. India has begun to take in the world at a rate unimaginable even to my parents. Yet when I sit above the Yamuna River at dusk, and watch a ferryman pole across the water. A trail of cows on the far shore and nothing else moving under the setting sun — or when I go into bazaars and run into tribal, bangled kids (from Perth, or Vancouver, or Dusseldorf) collecting talismans of pleasure or wisdom (or the convergence of both) — India looks to me just as it did a generation, or (no doubt) ten generations, too: an image of the Absolute brought down to earth.

India is immutable, timeless, eternal.

Video Night in Kathmandu also takes in Nepal, Tibet, China, Hong Kong, Burma, Thailand, Philippines and Japan. Iyer writes with flair, acknowledging his debt to Time magazine, which gave him time to pursue his “Eastern interests”.

The book has its funny moments. For example, here Iyer is describing a moment at a pagoda in Rangoon during a Buddhist festival when he comes across a Western couple:

The girl was dressed in an earth mother’s uniform of bandanna, thick sweater and jeans, her friend in dropout jumper and jeans. ‘This is a holy day for Buddha,’ explained our host, handing each of us some food. ‘And this, you see, is a custom of our religion.’ ‘We have a religion too,’ offered the foreign girl brightly. ‘It’s called the Grateful Dead.’”

The Grateful Dead was hot back then. In the chapter on the Philippines, titled Born in the USA, Iyer describes how one of his English Old Etonian schoolfriends bonds with a Filipino bar singer in a Manila hotel singing Grateful Dead songs together — Casey Jones, Mama Tried — and Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

Iyer writes:

Thus was I initiated into the joys of Filipino music. And thus I absorbed one of the Orient’s greatest truths: that the Filipinos are its omnipresent, always smiling troubadours. Masters of every American gesture, conversant with every Western song, polished and ebullient all at once, the Filipino plays minstrel to the entire continent.

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