Rajendra Pachauri, the formerly outspoken head of the IPCC, was yanked firmly off the global stage last January after his blustering and insulting attacks on well-founded criticisms of exaggerations and false predictions in the UN’s high profile climate report turned him into an embarrassing liability to the global environmental movement. “Voodoo science,” he said dismissively of Indian critics of the IPCC’s ludicrously overstated and ultimately discredited claim that the Himalayan glaciers would melt in 35 years. After months of non-stop grandstanding and counter-productive public appearances, someone seems to have hooked him offstage; for now, Dr. Pachauri has vanished down a rabbit hole, though he may pop up again on August 30, when the UN assessment of the IPCC report will be released.
But if we do not have him, we still have his work to comfort us during the long and lonely hours. True, his remarkable novel Return to Almora has unaccountably failed so far to find a US printer, but thanks to Amazon a trickle of copies is available for those who simply can’t do without him. Count me among that number; I’ve read every word of this fascinating book, trying to learn about the man that the global environment movement placed at the forefront of the science of climate change.
Return to Almora is something of an extended Bildungsroman: a fictionalized autobiography in which the main character goes from extreme youth to full maturity — in this case, until his early sixties. We see our hero Sanjay Nath as an infant in his parents’ arms, at school and at play, suffering as the British imperialists punish his father for his courageous patriotic defiance, enduring the pangs of first love, recalling memories of his previous incarnation in Almora, winning honors and prestigious job offers, overcoming boyish sexual misadventures to become a smoother adult operator, opening a successful chain of meditation centers across the United States, accepting the salutes of holy men and saints who spontaneously and miraculously step forward to acknowledge his spiritual grandeur, and doing his best not to hurt the feelings of the many talented and beautiful women who keep throwing themselves at his feet. In the end, Sanjay finds happiness and fulfillment. As gurus and holy men prostrate themselves before him and acknowledge his awesome spiritual achievements in the Himalayan caves, Sanjay reaches a new level of insight. It is not enough to teach the world to meditate: he has a new truth to reveal — that it is also important to help the unfortunate. He determines to do this; he will help the simple people of the hills. The closing pages of the novel see him contemplating new tours of the international lecture circuit where he can share this insight and his experiences of helping the poor (when he gets around to having them) with the many, many people who need the wisdom that only he can bring.
It is hard to evaluate this novel. Pachauri, who claims to have dashed the book off while flying from one international meeting to the next, is not without talent; this reader at least found himself compulsively turning the pages. The dialog is often clunky and obtuse; the plot frequently loses all sense of direction, wandering pointlessly across unvarying terrain; descriptions are casual and brusque. Yet the story moves. Readers wonder which of the many women candidates will land the hypnotically attractive but elusive Sanjay — and how long they will keep him before his spiritual quest sends him off again, the Lone Ranger of Love.
One doesn’t quite get what women see in him. Sanjay is a narcissistic ninny and fop who is the most embarrassing when he is the most sincere. No new age cliche can be too silly for him, no piece of parapsychological quackery too ludicrous for him to embrace. (At one point, a mysterious holy man with a great deal of funding has graduate students wear special tin hats through which they are put into contact with the ‘divine’. This is all very scientific, the narrator reassures us; the subjects report on a scale of one to ten how close to the deity they feel and the resulting data is averaged and calculated using the best available statistical methods. This data allows the holy man to determine that, just as the ancient Hindu sages taught, the earth has specially holy places where the electro-magnetic waves emanating from the divine are felt more strongly than at others. The mountains of Peru, the Arctic and of course the sacred mountains of India are places where the Force is particularly strong.) In a brief walk on role in the novel, Shirley Maclaine explains about the mountains of Peru and immediately recognizes Sanjay as a kindred spirit and fellow Great Soul.
The intellectual vapidity and narcissistic self satisfaction of the book is unsurpassable. Politics, science, religion: characters spout the most shopworn cliches in the apparent belief that they are uttering profound truths. After Sanjay writes an angry letter to the editor denouncing Ronald Reagan for reasons that will sound silly to the reader but are evidently convincing to the narrator, Senator Chuck Sommers, the junior senator from Pennsylvania begs Sanjay to be accepted as a student of meditation — and speaks to him about the importance of enlightened political action. To quote Pachauri’s own scintillating prose and sparkling dialog:
“Sandy, you must work for larger causes in which you believe,” Chuck Sommers said, putting his arm around Sanjay’s shoulder. “I greatly admire what you are doing to bring peace to so many human souls. But we must also bring peace on earth. There is too much strife around us, and too little compassion. Political leaders use people and events for their own narrow purposes, putting a spin of superficial nobility and righteousness on everything. We have to raise our voices against this evil.”
Sharp, focused, useful: that is our Sanjay’s political approach. As for the politics of Shirley MacLaine, here is how Pachauri describes them:
“Shirley talked about the rally in which she had come to take part. She had decided, along with a few other committed people to protest US foreign policy and to demonstrate in favor of pro-choice legislation. She would handle General Zia and Pakistan, a bit later on, after she had mobilised support from other quarters.”
That is pretty much the level of ‘intellectual’ conversation in the book. No one really struggles with ideas; no one grapples with logic or evidence. No piece of platitudinous claptrap is ever contested, and no religious doctrine or precept ever seriously interferes with anyone’s desire to do as they please. In Return to Almora, at least, the truth is what ‘we’ think, and we recognize it not because we sift evidence and chop logic. We perceive the truth because of who we are; some people just happen to know what is right and, fortunately, we just happen to be that kind of people. Whether it is the impending doom of the glaciers (whose disappearance is a recurring minor theme), the errors of American Republicans (another theme), or the superiority of Hinduism to all other religious traditions (the dominant underlying message, expressed with extraordinary naivete that is almost but not quite endearing), we are guided by the inner light rather than anything so vulgar as logical disputation.
A family friendly website like this one is not the proper place to describe Pachauri’s portrait of Sanjay’s sex life. It is not a pretty picture; parts of the book read like the Memoirs of a Disgusting Old Goat — by the kind of Old Goat that doesn’t understand the concept of too much information.
The difficulty in reading Return to Almora isn’t rendering judgment on a vacuous ninny like Sanjay. The libraries of world literature are rich, but there are few main characters as vain, as blind, as ludicrous and as lacking in self-awareness as Pachauri’s protagonist. The question is whether Pachauri understands what a fool he’s created: is Pachauri in on the joke or is he part of the joke? Is he mercilessly and cleverly exposing the absurdities and obsessions of a certain type of unreflective smoothie, or is he naively celebrating that success because he himself is so vain, so blind and so caught up in fame that he is as clueless as Sanjay?
The narrative voice gives us no clue. The narrator uncritically reports Sanjay’s self assessments and observations as fact; the authorial voice neither challenges nor reflects on Sanjay’s swollen ego and narcissistic obsession. If Pachauri is in on the joke, this is a truly masterful satire — viciously mocking the spiritual pretentiousness of shallow Hindu practice, the intellectual weakness of India’s aspiring upper middle class and the callous disregard for family and friends of the opportunistic male striver. Perhaps Rajendra Pachauri is an unacknowledged literary genius: the Jonathan Swift of modern India.
Or maybe as the Times of India theorized in its review, Pachauri has just written a cynical potboiler. Perhaps Pachauri recognizes the folly and stupidity of the world’s Sanjays, but he believes that a lot of Indian readers share some of these ideas. He wants to sell books, not challenge world views, and so he’s decided to pander rather than to teach. He wouldn’t be the first intellectual who decided there’s more money in backing popular illusions than fighting them.
The most troubling possibility, however, is that Pachauri doesn’t criticize or undercut Sanjay in the novel because he doesn’t recognize Sanjay for what he is. Some reviewers have spoken of Sanjay as an idealized version of Pachauri: this is Rajendra Pachauri as he would like to be and Rajendra Pachauri’s Sanjay is his portrait of a hero.
This is a truly chilling thought — that the global environmental movement might have accepted someone whose ideas and culture are this vapid and banal into its leadership. Putting on a tin hat and telling a guru on a one-to-ten scale how close to the divine you feel is, literally, voodoo science and neither Sanjay nor the narrator seem to grasp the difference between tinfoil hats and the real thing. Greens should be deeply, deeply grateful that Pachauri’s novel has stayed off the shelves in the US.
The complete silence surrounding this important publishing event (how many celebrity Nobel prize winners publish racy sex novels?) in the US is all the more surprising because the novel was a big deal in India. The sudden disappearance of Dr. Pachauri from global media and the iron curtain of silence that fell in the west over this truly appalling book may be welcome signs that the global environmental leadership is belatedly beginning to acquire some elementary caution and good sense.
The lack of any intellectual rigor or evidence of rational thought in this book is remarkable. Sanjay doesn’t think, really; he swims. When persons of good credentials and backgrounds appear, he accepts their ideas into his worldview. Criticism and rigorous thinking are just not in his repertoire. When famous gurus fall at his feet, when glamorous women kneel by the door of his bedroom, Sanjay doesn’t ask many questions — other than, in the case of the women, asking whether this particular one needs him so badly that it is worth suspending his normal vow of chastity. Sanjay’s views on Himalayan glacier melt are very much like his views on reincarnation and tinfoil hats: intuition tells him that it must be so.
Fundamentally, Sanjay is a person who intuits rather than thinks. Whatever ideas are accepted and popular around him are the raw materials with which he builds his own worldview and, more importantly, his career. He is a fixer, a negotiator, adept at finding his path through the accepted ideas and powerful institutions of his time. Intellectually, spiritually and romantically, Sanjay is a playboy: he’s a lover not a fighter whose goal is to find a comfortable place for himself in the world rather than stage some kind of lonely, adversarial struggle for truth. Not that he won’t sometimes pose as a lonely individualist — it’s a good way to get dates.
Although it remains unclear whether Pachauri is the Sinclair Lewis or the Babbit of this story, the satirist or the unintentional and unknowing butt, Return to Almora is a vicious and deflating portrait of international civil society and the Great and the Good. Vapid and unthinkingly fashionable intellectuals and activists drift in and out of international conferences and fancy hotels, propelled on gassy clouds of consensus, chattering like the characters in Cole Porter’s “Well, Did You Evah.” Professors, business people and officials swirl pointlessly around one another, feeling good about themselves while getting little or nothing done. There is a great deal of compassion for the poor, but nobody breaks a nail.
Lucky for him, Sanjay never encounters any serious criticism in this book. No one accuses him of scientific fraud, no one seriously disagrees with his ‘research’, no one takes him to task over the fee structures of his Meditation Huts (or whatever he calls his 400 plus franchised enlightenment outlets). It seems likely that if controversy ever came Sanjay’s way he would respond badly. First he’d try lofty, above it all condescension; when that failed to stifle opponents he’d result to angry and unthinking vituperation. In neither case would he show much talent for detailed, evidence-based argument. At the end, he would vanish from the scene, looking and sounding hurt, and go off to seek inner peace among the forgiving silence of the Himalayan hills. There, where the Force is strong, he would heal. The gurus and saddhus would throw themselves at his feet; women would batter down his door; memories of his past incarnations would distract him from unpleasant events; from time to time he would consider ways to help the poor and spread the light.
Let us hope that Rajendra Pachauri’s new and quieter life suits him well. It is unlikely that the world’s environmentalists will ever again ask him to play a conspicuous part in their affairs.
As for the novel-writing, I’d suggest that he not quit his day job–the Peace Prize he shares with Al Gore is probably all the Norwegian love that Pachauri can expect.
I’m glad I read Return to Almora, but unless the book is the diabolically clever product of a satirical mastermind it will, I very much hope, be the last piece of Pachauri’s fiction that I’ll ever see. Reading one novel like this could happen to anybody; reading two of them begins to look careless.