“How we view the world is a strange alchemy of cultural conditioning and personal choice. One could cautiously avoid all geomorphic speculations or, like the Tibetans, allow the configurations of rock and water to guide one into more exalted thoughts and alternate ways of seeing. As the Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote: “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?” – The Heart of the World by Ian Baker
I spent the last couple of days stealing bits of time here and there to finish reading ‘The Heart of the World’ by Ian Baker. The book was on my radar for a while and was happy when my book club decided to read it.
‘The Heart of the World’ is really really long, but well written. I felt the book took time to gain momentum. It’s also challenging if you’re unfamiliar with the setting or the cultural context, because it makes it difficult to get immersed in the story.
I admit I hadn’t finished the book by the time the book club meeting happened. But I’m glad I attended the meeting because I read the remainder of the book more intentionally.
Science vs Spirituality
The theme I most related to was the conflict between science and spirituality. Baker is a highly accomplished scholar and mountaineer. In some interviews I watched online, he speaks of the fact that his interest in Tibetan painting, Buddhism and philosophy preceded formal study on these topics.
I feel his background as a philosopher and his training as an academic is evident in the narrative where we see him trying to situate local beliefs against Westernised thought processes. For instance, he refers to his quest sometimes as a journey and sometimes as a pilgrimage. While he provides detailed descriptions of physical hardships, he also talks about dakinis, the anger of the Gods manifesting as turbulent weather, prayers and rituals to ensure success, not eating and drinking in houses of people thought to be dakinis so they don’t steal your soul etc. Baker also mentions that in his meetings with the Dalai Lama he had understood how much the Dalai Lama was inspired by advances in science. At this moment it seems that the narrator is either justifying his standpoint – perhaps to himself or perhaps to the reader.
The greatest example of this theme is towards the end of the book, when they are almost at their destination. He takes a step back to evaluate his journey/pilgrimage. He ruminates about whether he’s in search of the Falls or something beyond that transcends the physical.
Another important theme is literature. Every now and then Baker inserts quotes from a wide array of books, authors, poems and philosophers. This makes literature relevant to the journey, and also shows us that Baker’s interest in philosophy is wide ranging. For instance when they find the Falls they need to measure the height of the water and Baker goes on a tangent about how to measure something that’s ever flowing and never still. Thoughts like these give us insight into Ian Baker the philosopher rather than Ian Baker, explorer. We realise his view is not narrow nor myopic – in fact it is informed by a wide range of cultures, travel, literature. I personally felt that his references to different literature made the journey and the narrator somehow more relatable.
Another theme is sex. There is a lot of sex interspersed in the narrative. Baker talks about seduction, sexual revelry, his friend Hamid’s sexual exploits, sex as a challenge, sex as reward, sex as temptation and also sex as illusion. There are anecdotes of local beliefs about sex throughout the story. In fact, his journey is believed to be one to the innermost parts of Dorje Pagmo, the Tibetan goddess, so it’s unsurprising that sex forms an important theme in the book.
What I Liked the Most
I loved the descriptive narrative. It could’ve been 500 pages about gnats and leeches, about injuries and hardships. Instead we get a narrative replete with all the colors and shapes of rhododendrons, goddesses, prayer wheels and rituals, exotic animals, lush meadows, waterfalls and rivers. The beauty in the narrative helped me understand why daredevils and explorers do what they do, and the hardships described in the story made me understand why I live in the comfort of a city.