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Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004

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No Holiday From The Self
Contradictions abound between philosophy and practice

By Leonard Ng

Losing Oneself in Remote Asia
Zia Zaman
Tangerine Press (2003) / 164 pages / USD 10.00

Zia Zaman’s Losing Oneself in Remote Asia is a slim, little book of about a hundred and sixty pages, by Tangerine Press. Presentation-wise, it’s a fairly typical small press offering: plain white cover with a single photograph of a (Bhutanese?) boy on it, A5-size paper, Times New Roman font. The two maps in the book are blurry computer printouts. It’s simple, unostentatious, down-to-earth, the sort of book one imagines being carried around and written in by earnest backpackers in little travellers’ hostels. The book claims to be “a collection of travel stories... blending mysticism, Eastern philosophy, sharp commentary, and humour.” The perfect fare, then, for peripatetic wanderers seeking to lose themselves (or is it find themselves?) in travel to places which are preferably poorer, less urban, and more exotic (whatever that means) than the places from which they come.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course: in fact this reviewer’s fairly sympathetic to (though somewhat bemused by) that particular species of traveller, having encountered not a few of them in personal travels through (remote?) Asia. It is one thing, however, to write for such an audience. It is quite another altogether to write like them.

And this is where several of this book’s major problems begin. By and large – though with significant exceptions – it reads like a collection of unedited, spur-of-the-moment journal entries by one of these meandering pilgrims. The urban electronic equivalent would be the print publication of somebody’s blog. This may be deliberate, for Zaman’s philosophy (insofar as I can make it out, for it remains fairly murky throughout) is that the Key is to Just Be; “even on a search for the perfect beach,” he writes, “the story should lack purpose.” Which, I suppose, means it should also lack editing. But that simply doesn’t make for good writing: Zaman’s book goes nowhere in the end, offers nothing unified, provides no new insights. On top of that it’s riddled with misspellings, bad grammar (ah, those darn tenses), misused words, purple prose, stylistic inconsistencies, and the occasional convoluted sentence. For example:

The day was the elephant festival of Ganesh, whose Pop-Art image sports the cover of the journal in which I am writing this account.

Got that one? No? Here’s another:

The shapes are sultry, if a shape could be considered sexy. Of course, it could and it is.

I wonder if he knows that “sultry” refers to an atmospheric quality. One more:

Living in unheated houses, tending fields, ambling in town squares, walking over mountains, these are the simple pleasures of a society in harmony, if you can forgive this trite but apt metaphor.

The triteness is undisputed; the aptness, debatable; the metaphor is nonexistent; and it’ll take a better person than I am to forgive this sort of thing. Most readers, I think, deserve better.

The point I’m trying to make is that from its very first paragraph the book screams, begs, wails while grovelling on its knees: edit me, edit me. This book is painfully in need of some tidying up, some streamlining, some stylistic regularisation. I’m sure the writing of the book was of some use to the author: that is, after all, what a journal is for. But I’m not sure any other reader’ll get anything of value out of it.

Because Zaman writes in clichés, in truisms, and sometimes even in how-to lists; there is little in this book that has not already been said, little that could actually be called insight. Sometimes the book feels like a half-hearted attempt to be “inspirational,” to be a sort of guide to Life’s Bigger Picture, as captured in these simple prescriptions:

These reminders of life’s larger purpose are easily applied to everyday Western life. Stop and be conscious of the simple things that you do without thinking. Breathe in deeply feeling the full capacity of your lungs. Close your eyes and focus on the sound of one man singing amidst a crowded church choir. Be awake. Be selfless in your career, giving of yourself, your time, and your good fortune when it is the least expected. Make giving effortless. Witness beauty and love selflessly. Take the everyday adversities of life in stride, whether it is traffic or financial worry, because the Buddha inside us all can remain unperturbed...

Other times it reads like a guide to How to Save a Buck When in Third World Countries:

At most major tourist monuments and sites, there are two prices. Usually it costs 10 rupees if you’re Indian, 10 dollars if you’re a foreigner. This has become something of a game to me... I have devised a heuristic to increase my chances. Here are five simple rules that give you the best chance of passing. First rule: never be wearing shorts. Shorts, even if they reveal a fine pair of brown legs is the trademark of a Westerner...

Contradictions abound, in this book, between what Zaman declares to be his philosophy and what he actually does. First, the philosophy. In addition to the inspirational commandments quoted above at length, there are a couple of other features, as seen in this passage:

When you can lose yourself and become as simple an observer as the crab, as the palm even, that is the Path. How does the cacophony of those crinkles that the palms emit differ from speech? A person talking, even whispering can get drowned out by the waves and the birds but it is still somehow interrupting. The palm’s song is the percussion, part of the natural scene. It is the scene. It is the splendour of the path. It is this moment in life. And, without hyperbole, it is life. Somewhat convoluted, but the general idea is clear enough. Zaman makes a distinction between the human and the natural world. What the human has to do is sit back, do nothing (if possible, be nothing) and appreciate the Beauty of Nature. This notion is echoed in the way he describes places:

When the sun finally sets, one can see the world of Luang Prabang in a bubbly glow for one last hurrah... The familiar shaded temples become so after just a few hours because they are (almost) ubiquitous. In life, when you get a chance to surround yourself with a combination of subdued natural beauty and unflinching examples of devotion, it humbles you.

Viet Nam is not about you. It’s not about YOUR country. It’s about right now, its beautiful, bright people and where they are, this moment.

Buddhism. Selflessness. Beauty. Contentment. The most important thing you can bring with you is your smile. This is particularly true in Laos. “I” does not exist. There is no “me” here. There is no “he” here. In Laos, one’s own life is held in its grasp, like clenching teeth on a supple grape. This life is precarious and if you try to taste it, you’ll break it, permute it. It’ll become about you. And we just can’t have that.

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004


About Leonard Ng
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Return to Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004

  Other Criticism in this Issue

A Dark Contemporary Eye
Neil Murphy reviews The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories.

Slippery Disconnect
Alvin Pang reviews The Ocean of Ambition.

Modernity and Its Discontents
Ng Wei Chian reviews Alternative (Post)Modernity: An Asian Perspective.

Related Links

Tangerine Press
External link.

Sample Zia Zaman story
External link.

Zia Zaman in his day job
External link.


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