A COUPLE OF DAYS BEFORE I began reading The Man Within My Head, a friend told me she had met the author’s father, Raghavan N Iyer, many years ago. At that first and only meeting, the celebrated philosopher, Oxford University professor and theosophist told my friend that he had abstained from sex until his wife was ready to conceive. He wanted to ensure that the product of their union would be exceptional, he said. The result was their only child, Pico Iyer.
It seemed an extraordinarily intimate story to share with a stranger. Yet as I gradually immersed myself in this superbly layered and detail-laden memoir, I began to understand how appropriate it was too. The author is exceptional in so many ways at once that even the least description of him shimmers with superlatives. He won academic scholarships to Eton, Harvard and Oxford University. He earned a ‘Congratulatory Double First’ at Oxford in the seventies before going on to teach at Harvard. In 1982 he joined TIME magazine. In his travel memoirs, he wears his accomplishments lightly, though it’s clear from his own evidence that he’s multilingual, has a phenomenal memory, plays the guitar and the piano and—probably most astounding of all—has survived five decades of near-continuous international travel with his sanity intact.
The hook upon which Iyer chooses to hang the story of his life is not, however, his intellectual achievements but a parallel narrative involving the novelist, adventurer, philanderer and always-defaulting Catholic, Graham Greene. The book begins with Iyer waking from a fitful sleep in the oxygen-depleted atmosphere of Bolivia. Abruptly, a description begins to pour out of him and onto paper, of a young schoolboy’s thoughts upon arriving at his English boarding school. “What was going on here?” he asks.