No. 8: “Video Night in Kathmandu” by Pico Iyer
Travel Blog • Rolf Potts • 05.24.06 | 11:04 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: East and South Asia
A collection of 11 essays chronicling the cultural fusion of East and West in the 1980s, Iyer’s literary debut is an answer to all those critics who claim that great travel writing died once the terra incognita was mapped. As this Asia-themed collection shows, the final frontier of adventure isn’t located on some distant mountain or impenetrable jungle, but in the intimate (and often comical) cross-cultural fascinations and discoveries that arise from an ever-shrinking world.
Amid his sharp reportage and analysis, Video Night in Kathmandu‘s greatest strength is Iyer’s refusal to draw prim moral conclusions as Western popular culture bumps up against the traditions of the East. Instead, he casts things in terms of a tenuous romance.
“When Westerner meets Easterner,” Iyer writes, “each finds himself often drawn to the other, yet mystified; each projects his romantic hopes on the stranger, as well as his designs; and each pursues both his illusions and his vested interests with a curious mix of innocence and calculation that shifts with every step.” Moreover, the author’s eye for ironic juxtapositions—Rambo-inspired musicals in India, baseball fever in Japan, Mowhawk haircuts in Bali—proves so keen that he practically inaugurates the now-common “cultural-contradiction” travel-story template. Even if the specific cross-cultural obsessions of “Video Night” (Michael Jackson, Rambo) seem a bit dated, the ensuing rise of globalization and reach of the Internet have only underscored how relevant Iyer’s observations were.
Outtake from Video Night in Kathmandu:
As tourists, we have reason to hope that the quaint anachronism we have discovered will always remain “unspoiled,” as fixed as a museum piece for inspection. It is perilous, however, to assume that its inhabitants will long for the same. Indeed, a kind of imperial arrogance underlies the very assumption that the people of the developing world should be happier without the TVs and motorbikes that we find so indispensable ourselves. If money does not buy happiness, neither does poverty.