We consider here a fascinating book by an equally fascinating English writer of Pakistani background. Javed Amir is a retired diplomat, a writer, a journalist and a man with wanderlust. He has written this book based on his extensive travels.
What distinguishes this book from other travel books is the scope as well as the depth and breadth of the author’s excursions into parts of the world that are not necessarily famous or well-trodden tourist paths. Javed Amir’s journeys took him to explore the landscapes where famous writers, poets, artists, and activists found their inspiration. In the process, the author tried to discover the underpinnings of those famous people and what influences those places had on the literature and the art they created.
Javed Amir is a well-informed traveler who chooses his destinations carefully. In a way, it was a quest that took him to places scattered across the world on five continents.
In Dublin, he walked in the footsteps of author James Joyce, whose claim to initial infamy and later unprecedented fame was his seminal novel Ulysses. Javed Amir, while discussing the novel, also explores its impact on English literature. While reading his essay on Joyce, one imagines him sitting in a sidewalk café in Dublin, sipping the local brew and watching Ulysses unfold before his eyes. In 1933, the US Supreme Court found the book to be utterly without redeeming social importance because it dealt with nudity. It was banned – but temporarily.
Book title: A Wanderer Between Worlds Author: Javed Amir Pages: 274 Price: PKR 2,200 in Pakistan, USD 30 elsewhere Publishers: Imprint Publishing, Islamabad, Pakistan
On a visit to Wales, the author explores the backdrop of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. It is only in the Welsh landscape that Thomas’s poems come alive. The poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” resonates with Welsh sensitivities. It is Javed Amir’s genius that he strings landscapes, personalities, poetry, and deeply embedded cultures to draw a vivid and vibrant picture.
Javed Amir’s journeys took him to explore the landscapes where famous writers, poets, artists, and activists found their inspiration
Albert Camus lived in a small house in the Montmarte neighborhood of Paris in the 1940s. That is where he wrote the novel The Stranger. It was a genuine Bohemian neighborhood where 37-years earlier Pablo Picasso had painted his famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon while living in a cheap and cramped hotel room.
A detailed description of the French painter and sculptor Pierre Auguste-Renoir’s home, Les Collettes, brings to life the man, his family and the beautiful views that the painter had from different windows of his house. The account becomes more textured when we learn about the famous visitors such as Rodin, Bonnard, Matisse, Modigliani and many others to the house. It was his friendship with the famous as well as with the ordinary that infused him with the spirit to create his masterpiece, The Luncheon of the Boating Party, in 1881.
Javed Amir deals with other writers and artists the same way: by connecting the dots between their lives and their works while looking at them through the prism of the present. The result is a kaleidoscope of colours, words, tunes and brushstrokes. They all appear larger than life – for they indeed were so! It is Amir’s insights into their works that connects the present with the past. He writes about visiting the places that still echo with the presence of TS Eliot, Chopin, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Orhan Pamuk, John Muir and James Baldwin among others.
D.H. Lawrence was an English poet and writer who, like a rolling stone, lived in various continents because of his unease with living in his native England. He found solace in the American state of New Mexico that, as Lawrence wrote, changed him forever.
He said “[…] curious as it may sound, New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilization, the great era of material and mechanical development […] The moment I saw the brilliant proud morning sun shine high up on the deserts of Santa Fe something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.”
The author explores in depth Lawrence’s New Mexico connection. And while at it, he pays homage to the mother of American Modernism, artist Georgia O’Keefe, who celebrated New Mexico in her paintings and sculptures.
Amir visits the enchanting city of Istanbul to pay homage to the Turkish novelist, screenwriter, academic and recipient of 2006 Nobel prize in literature, Orhan Pamuk. In his works, Pamuk celebrates the complexities of Istanbul, the city of his birth. In his autobiographical novels, like those of Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, Pamuk tells of his own life and his deep attachment to Istanbul. Many writers who have a deep love for the soil of their birth end up interjecting their personal memories into their works. Javed Amir does a wonderful job of exploring those themes in Orhan Pamuk’s work.
Javed Amir is a master narrator who excels in making connections between artists, poets, writers etc. and the places they lived in
Pamuk, according to the Amir, has a melancholic attachment to Istanbul. In Turkish it is called ‘Huzun’ (Urdu: Huzn-o-Malaal) a combination of anguish, sadness and despair. A person with a sensitive soul cannot live in the present only. However, to connect with the past – whether remote or immediate – is at times hard and agonizing. Just ask those Indians and Pakistanis who have gone through the trauma of Partition in 1947. Hence, the recurrent theme of Huzun in Pamuk’s writings about the currents of history that changed and shaped his beloved city.
The essay on John Muir and Yosemite National Park brings out the intuitive personality of the former. He was an environmentalist at the time when the subject and the discipline was not in common currency. And he was a crusader to prevent the encroachment of development into the western wilderness of America. It was left to an equally committed and resolute conservationist, President Theodore Roosevelt, to declare large swathes of the western wilderness of America as Yosemite National Park.
Javed Amir is a master narrator who excels in making connections between artists, poets, writers etc. and the places they lived in. One sees similar mastery throughout the book when he writes about Prague and Kafka, London’s TS Eliot, Guinea and Sekou Toure, Arles and Van Gogh, Trinidad and Naipaul and many more.
Most of the people he writes about had a strong connection with the land they were born in. Even in their wanderings, they kept the memories of their childhood and upbringing close to their hearts. Ernest Hemmingway was born in Oak Brook near Chicago, but he spent most of his life away from the place of his birth. However, Oak Brook remained a big part of his persona all his life. Javed Amir was born in Lahore and was shaped by that enchanting city. As he explored the world through the literary and artistic prism, he remained a ‘pukka’ Lahori. In an introductory essay, Javed Amir admits that Lahore defines him. His success as an essayist is in large part because of his feeling of belonging to the city of his birth. Thus, he can relate with the likes of Dylan Thomas, Franz Kafka, Orhan Pamuk, John Steinbeck and El Greco.
The author has inserted many photographs of himself and his family throughout the book. Though some of them are part of the story he tells, others tend to bring his extraordinary effort into the realm of family vacation books. He devotes a chapter to the comments and praise by some of the well-known writers including Ejaz Rahim, Syed Afsar Sajid, Riaz Muhammad Khan and Sarbuland Khan. In the same chapter he includes comments by his family. Those comments – loving and endearing as they are – belong elsewhere in the book, or not at all.
Javed Amir’s curiosity (tajussus in Urdu) about the subjects of his essays reminds me of Maulana Abu Kalam Azad who had dedicated his monumental work Tujuman-e-Quran to an unnamed poor Afghan who had traveled on foot 2,000 km from Afghanistan to Ranchi, India, to learn from the learned scholar explanations of certain verses in the Quran.
It was the yearning to learn that brought the poor man to India, and it was the same yearning that took Javed Amir on his literary and artistic quest.
The book is a fragrant collage of music and poetry rendered in vibrant colours. It is in a true sense Javed Amir’s tour de force.
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at email@example.com