"I don't think technology is a bad thing as far as spirituality is concerned. I just fear the instant means of communication today is drowning our voice," Pico Iyer tells me after The Global Soul and the Search for Home session at the Jaipur Literature Festival. I have managed a moment with Iyer after following him for the last three days. My request for an interview was turned down without a reason. A group of girls is following him for an autograph. He looks at me, puzzled, and says, "My, I feel like pied piper. Where are we going?"
He is hailed as one of the finest travel writers of our times. But, at the next session, A Sense of Place, presented by the Hindustan Times, he abruptly says: "I don't much enjoy travel writing – reading it or writing it." You're left wondering if he's joking. He's not.
Iyer, 56, is an anomaly.
He has a lucid, dignified and soft-caring voice, but he's a swift talker. He also has a remarkable ability to turn a discussion into philosophy of the road with the wisdom of being a relentless traveller and having lived in so many cultures.
Born in England, raised in California, and educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard, he has been living in Japan for more than two decades and has a Japanese wife. He lives with no bicycle, no car, no television, no mobile phone and no skype. "I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn't want or need, not all I did," he writes in The Joy of Less, The New York Times.
The sense you get, if you hear him for a while, is the idea of belonging doesn't change when you move, it transforms, "Home is not necessarily a place where you come from, rather it's a place where you become." Iyer at the global soul session points to how more and more people are turning into snails and carrying their homes with them. "The notion of home is work in progress."
His most recent book, The Man Within My Head, is about Iyer's discovery of Graham Greene's work and how he was haunted by the English writer. He calls Greene his alternate 'father'.
"My sense as I stumble along is that I am a figment of Greene's imagination -- that he has scripted me," he says in his conversation with author of India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, Akash Kapur. "Greene was fascinated by subjects he couldn't put his finger on. I feel like I'm drifting through his imagination."
As I follow Iyer through the crowd, I see the slight foam in the corner of his lips and a glint in his tired eyes. I can't suppress a smile when I hear him say a few moments later, "at home you can sleepwalk through your days, but you have to confront situations when you travel". We must travel more, I think. But the journey can also be an inward one.
Finally, when it comes to writing, he tells Kapur, it is more about structure than content. "The things we care about the most -- love, terror are things we can't explain," he says. "All life is a burning house."