In the back streets of exotic Kathmandu, Pico Iyer and his friend Kristin hear a prophecy that shatters their youthful dreams. The Royal Astrologer knows them better than they know themselves.
Kristin and I were scuffling around the back streets of Kathmandu on a lazy November afternoon. We’d already gone to the zoo that day, and been unsettled to see a brown bear clutching at the bars of his cage, wailing piteously. We’d trudged around the National Museum, where every artifact of the King’s life was recorded, with particular reference to “The Royal Babyhood.” We’d passed an early evening amongst the spires of Durbar Square, watching bright-eyed boys play Carom while their elder brothers brushed against us in their jackets, muttering, “Brown sugar, white sugar, coke, smack, dope.”
But now the afternoon was yawning ahead of us and we didn’t know what to do. It was a rare opportunity for shared sight-seeing: Kristin was accustomed to heading out every night at 10 p.m., reeling through the pubs and bars of the old city, being chatted up by self-styled mystics before fumbling back to our tiny room in the Hotel Eden as the light was coming through the frosty windows. I’d take off, a little later, into the heavy mist, notebook in hand, to record the bearded sages who sat along the streets peddling every brand of cross-cultural wisdom. She was collecting experience, we liked to think, I was collecting evidence.
We’d met in New York City eight months before and, on a wild impulse, had decided that Kristin should join me on the last stop of a four-month tour through Asia that I was planning to take. She had a charming boyfriend back on East 3rd Street, and I was romancing my notebook, so it felt more than safe as we settled into our sixth-floor room on Freak Street.
I opened my Lonely Planet guide—my companion through all the countries I’d visited—and pointed out to her one item that had long intrigued me. There, tucked among long lists of trekking agencies and meditation centers, explanations of living goddesses, and reviews of apple-pie emporia, was the single most startling entry I had seen in such a work: “The Royal Astrologer.” For a price, the write-up said, this mage who consulted with the palace on even its most important decisions—When was the right day to pass some edict? Which time boded well for a royal birth?—was available to anyone who wished to see him.
How could either of us resist?
I had grown up in England, among little boys at boarding school who defined ourselves by everything we imagined we could see through. By day, we committed to memory the lines of Xenophon and Caesar; by night, we proved ourselves “superior” to everyone around us with cascades of fluency and quasi-sophisticated airs we’d borrowed from our books.
Three times a year, I left my all-male internment camp and flew back to my parents’ home in California. There, in a blindingly yellow house perched above the clouds, my father was reading the palm of every stranger who visited, talking of Aquarian precessions and the “Ascended Masters of the Himalayas.” His students, graduates of the Summer of Love, were attuned to psychic vibrations, auras, and verses from the Bhagavad Gita, but I wasn’t sure they’d recognize real life if it punched them in the face.
What better environment for producing someone who loudly announced he believed in nothing?
Kristin, however, had never given up on magic. She was five years younger than I—twenty-three to my twenty-eight—and she had a powerful belief in herself (or some parts of herself), matched only by her conviction that life would reward that faith.
One time, she’d come to my office, on the twenty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Center, and I’d pulled out a backgammon set. I was one throw from victory, and the only way she could defeat me was by throwing a double six. She closed her eyes, she shook the dice again and again between her hot palms, she muttered something nonsensical, and then she sent the dice clattering across the board.
One stopped rolling, and disclosed a six. The other came at last to rest: another six.
What true sage would allow himself to be listed in a ‘Lonely Planet’ guide, I wondered?
Now, as we tried to follow the runic instructions to the Astrologer—what true sage would allow himself to be listed in a Lonely Planet guide, I wondered?—we found ourselves passing through empty courtyards and along a scribble of narrow lanes. We were directed toward a golden temple, and then through another maze of darkened backstreets, and then led out into an open space where a ladder brought us up to a second-floor redoubt.
When the Royal Astrologer greeted us with a business card listing his doctorate and his work for NASA, my every doubt was confirmed.
Still, I was sure I could get a good story out of this, so we agreed on neither the priciest of his readings, nor the cheapest. We padded off to while away the hours before he could give us his verdicts, and settled into one of those Kathmandu cafés that might have doubled as Ali Baba’s cave.
Nepal in those days was budget time-travel to all the revolutions we were too young to have experienced firsthand. Pillows and cushions were scattered across the floor of this (as of many a) café, and a swirl of peasant-skirt bedspreads turned the space into a kind of magic tent. A creaky cassette of “The Golden Road of Unlimited Devotion” unspooled blearily on the sound system, and any number of mushroom enchiladas and “secret recipe” lasagnas on the menu promised transport of a more mysterious kind.
Travel, for me, had always been a testing of the waters. Every journey is a leap of faith, of course, a venture, ideally, into the unknown. But for me a large part of the point of encountering the Other was to see what and how much to believe in. Every stranger approaching me with a smile posed a challenge of trust—and asked, silently, how much I could be trusted, too. Something was at stake in nearly every transaction, I felt, and it was as essential as whether you believed the world made sense or not.
Kristin and I had met when she, a former student of my father’s, had read a cover story I’d written on the Colombian drug trade. She dreamed of being a writer, though for now, just out of college, she was working as a temp in a succession of Manhattan offices, deploying her capacity for typing at a furious speed. I had similar dreams, though for the time being I was cranking out long articles every week on world affairs for Time magazine, drawn from the reports of colleagues in the field. The explosion of demonstrations that was convulsing apartheid-stricken South Africa, the maneuverings preceding the Mexican election, the gas leak in Bhopal: I covered them all with the assurance of one who had never seen the places I was describing.
In the warm summer evenings, the two of us met often in the gardens of tiny cafés in the East Village, and she showed me the story she’d just written about Desirée, an Indonesian bride arriving in America. I told her of the book I was going to write on Asia. We swapped our latest discoveries from James Salter or Don De Lillo, and she told me of her girlhood adventures growing up in India and Japan and Spain (her father a spy under deepest cover).
As we climbed the stairs back to the Royal Astrologer’s chamber, we might have been stumbling into an emergency room after an earthquake. Half of Nepal was there, so it seemed, shivering in the near-dark as everyone waited for his or her fortune.
By the time we headed out into the streets again, dusk was beginning to fall over the Nepali capital, turning it into fairy-tale enchantment once more. Oil lamps and flickering candles came on in the disheveled storefronts and faces peered out at us, almost invisible save for their eyes. We slipped and lurched across the uneven, potholed paths, the silhouetted spires of temples all around us. The noise and the crowds of the big city seemed to fade away, and we were in a medieval kingdom at its prime.
As we climbed the stairs back to the Royal Astrologer’s chamber, we might have been stumbling into an emergency room after an earthquake. Half of Nepal was there, so it seemed, shivering in the near-dark as everyone waited for his or her fortune. A family wondering when to take its newborn to the temple, and how to name him; a nervous couple thinking about auspicious marriage dates.
Quite often, a sudden thump at the door announced an urgent messenger—from the palace perhaps? The Royal Astrologer handed out futures as easily as a doctor might, and the people who left his room were seldom the same as when they came in.
Finally, he summoned us closer and pored over the charts he’d drawn up from our times and places of birth.
“So,” he said, turning to Kristin—she craned forward, taut with attention—“generally, I have found that you have a special talent.” She braced herself. “This gift you have is for social work.”
I’d never seen my friend look so crushed.
“Does it say anything about creative work, an imaginative life?”
He looked again at the circle with all the partitions and said, “Your talent is for social work.”
She didn’t say a word at first. “Nothing about writing, then?”
He shook his head.
When it came to my turn, I worried it might prove awkward once he confirmed my future as a ground-breaking writer after what he’d said to my friend.
“So,” he said, looking down, “generally I have found that your strength is diligence.”
He pointed out the calculations and quadrants that confirmed this.
“‘Diligence’ in the sense of doing one’s duty?”
“Yes,” he said, and began explaining every scribble, but to someone who was no longer listening.
I knew that diligence was the quality that the Buddha had urged on his disciples in his final breath. But the Royal Astrologer wasn’t a Buddhist, and nor was I. To me, the word smacked of Boy Scout badges and “to do” lists.
“I think,” he went on, perhaps sensing our disappointment, “that every month, on the day of the full moon, you should meditate for an hour. And eat no meat all day.”
This sounded like the kind of thing my father would say. He’d been a vegetarian all his life and was full of talk of the virtues of stilling the mind and fasting so as to access a deeper wisdom.
I negotiated the sage down to fifteen minutes a month and a day without meat, and we filed out.
I knew I could never survive in an office now that I had such a rich sense of how the world could stretch my sense of possibility in every direction.
My four months wandering amidst the conundrums of Asia changed my life more irreversibly than I could have imagined. I went to California to write up my adventures, and when my seven-month leave of absence was over, and I returned to New York City, I knew I could never survive in an office now that I had such a rich sense of how the world could stretch my sense of possibility in every direction. While writing up my droll account of the magicians of Kathmandu—and the others I’d met across the continent—I’d remembered to keep an eye out for the full moon and had sat still for a few minutes once a month, restricting myself for one day every thirty to Panang vegetable curries.
It hadn’t seemed to hurt.
So now I served notice to my bosses at Time, packed up my things in the elegant office overlooking another 50th Street high-rise, emptied my eleventh-floor apartment on Park Avenue South, and moved to a small room on the backstreets of Kyoto without toilet or telephone or, truth be told, visible bed.
As I was settling into my cell, on my twentieth week in Japan, I found a letter in my mailbox downstairs. It was from Kristin, in New York. Her father had died suddenly the previous year, she told me. She’d been distraught, hadn’t known where to turn or how to get her longing out, so she’d taken to her desk.
Every night, while everyone around her slept, she’d typed—and typed and typed. When her novel was finished, she’d sent it out to publishers. Within hours, Random House had signed her up for a six-figure sum, and by now rights had been sold in a dozen countries around the world; she and her friends were spinning a globe as the number mounted.
At twenty-six, she seemed assured of a glorious future. She’d rolled a double six again.
A few weeks later, I walked, as I did every Wednesday afternoon, to the little shop across from Kyoto University that stocked a few foreign magazines. It was my one tiny moment of connection with the world I had abandoned. I forked over 700 yen, collected the week’s edition of Time magazine and consulted it, as I always did, while ambling back through the quiet, sunlit lanes to my tiny room.
As I was paging through the magazine, from the back, something caught the edge of my gaze that looked like a misprint—or, more likely, a projection of an over-eager imagination. There, in the Books pages, was a picture of someone who looked a bit like me—or, rather, like me in my previous life, in button-down shirt and striped tie.
I knew the magazine was eager never to take notice of books written by its staff—even former members of the staff—but I looked again and there, among the eminences, was a small, friendly review of my book about whirlwinding across Asia, accompanied by a visa-sized picture. I had any number of other projects I’d been chafing to complete, and now, I felt, I could try to be a writer at last.
“Diligence” and “social work” indeed! The Royal Astrologer didn’t know a thing.
That was half a lifetime ago, almost to the day, and more than a hundred seasons have passed. A few years after our visit, the palace in Kathmandu was torn apart by a crazy massacre and I had no doubt that the Royal Astrologer was no longer in service (if only because he would have been in trouble if he had predicted such a bloody coup—or if he hadn’t. Telling futures for the powerful has never been a reliable source of income).
As for Kristin, her path of double sixes had continued, almost impossibly, for quite a while. Her boyfriend in the Village, like so many, was a committed Star Trek fan and, like thousands of Trekkies, no doubt, had sent in a script on spec to the program’s showrunners in Hollywood.
Unlike most such fans, though, he’d seen his script accepted. He’d been flown out to L.A. and offered a full-time job with the program. He’d taken up a big house with Kristin in the Hollywood Hills, a chief architect of the universe he’d once worshipped from afar.
Few couples of my acquaintance had found such lustrous futures in their twenties. When I visited, Kristin and her beau seemed to have exceeded anything they might have hoped for, with their Spanish-style villa above the canyons, the red, open-top sports car, publishers and TV executives waiting to turn their words into pictures.
But Kristin had always had a restless soul—perhaps the same soul that had brought her to Nepal and sent her out into the streets every evening—and somewhere along the way, in flight from stability but not sure exactly of what she wanted instead, she’d burned the life she’d found and lost it all. Now, in her early fifties, she lives alone with a beloved cat, tending to every lost animal, still writing, but in a world that doesn’t seem very interested in novels, especially from the not so young.
Her strongest quality, though, remains her fierce attachment to her friends. She lives through them and with them, the centers of her universe, and keeps up with pals from high school in Tokyo and Delhi on a sometimes daily basis. She sends me warm and mischievous messages on my birthday and remembers every last detail of 1985. As the years have passed without bringing all the adventures that once seemed inevitable, she tells me that the trip to Kathmandu was one of the highlights of her life.
It was only travel—being propelled beyond the world we thought we knew and could anticipate—that stripped us of our petty certainties, our flimsy defenses, our boyish confidence. It was only figures such as the Royal Astrologer who showed us that we didn’t know a thing.
And me? A couple of years after my first book came out, I sat in a car just under the yellow house above the clouds and watched a wildfire take it apart, every inch of it, so that everything I and my parents owned—not least the notes and outlines I’d drawn up for my next three books—was reduced to ash.
In any case, I’d fallen under the spell of Japan and silence by then and decided to take on a wife and two kids, giving up my thoughts of becoming a writer, and simply turning out several articles a week to support an expanding household.
Writing, I’d seen, demands a ferocious, all-consuming commitment, a refusal to be distracted—or, sometimes, even to be responsible. That would never be my gift.
I smile when I hear people say that the young are too credulous, too open, too ready to be transformed. I and my school friends were so much the opposite. It was only travel—being propelled beyond the world we thought we knew and could anticipate—that stripped us of our petty certainties, our flimsy defenses, our boyish confidence. It was only figures such as the Royal Astrologer who showed us that we didn’t know a thing.
We sit on opposite sides of the world now—Kristin essentially a model of social work, with the passionate attention she brings to her friends, while I steadily meet my daily deadlines, the very picture of diligence—and see that life has much wiser plans for us than we ever could have come up with. The only one who really was exercising a writer’s imagination, the kind that sees the future as easily as the past, was the well-meaning man I had mocked as he tried to nudge us toward a truer understanding of who we really are—and were.
From The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology 2016. © 2016 Lonely Planet (lonelyplanet.com)