- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Rupa (1 December 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 8171673821
- ISBN-13: 978-8171673827
- Package Dimensions: 21.4 x 13.4 x 1.2 cm
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #54,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
In Light of India Paperback – 1 Dec 1990
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Octavio Paz is one of the great European cultural icons of the 20th century a poet beyond praise, a critic beyond criticism and an essayist whose insights illuminate our mediocre culture with the gorgeous richness of stained glass wisdom - Richard Gott, Guardian
About the Author
Eliot Weinberger is the distinguished translator of Octavio Paz's poetry and the editor of The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-87.
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So after a long and pleasant journey, Octavio Paz reached Bombay and set foot on the Indian subcontinent. There he discovered a country "populated by dark men with pointed mustaches and scimitars at their waists, by women with amber-colored skin, hair and eyebrow as black as crows' wings, and the huge eyes of lionesses in heat." But his erotic fantasy was brutally interrupted once again by the same implacable Mexican minister who, feeling perhaps that India was still too close to home, has him transferred to Tokyo, where another adventure began.
Some eleven years and about the same number of published books later, Octavio Paz returned to India, this time as the ambassador from his country (history doesn't tell whether he exacted revenge against the jealous official that had him transferred twice against his will.) He then stayed for a little more than six years, before resigning from public office in reaction to his government's repression of the students movement in 1968. He had the occasion to come back to India for a series of lectures in 1985, and this book, part memoir and part essay, is an extended version of his lecture notes.
The first part of In Light of India tries to answer a similar question to the one he addressed about his own country in The Labyrinth of Solitude: to paraphrase a famous address, how can a nation conceived under particular circumstances and dedicated to a certain ideal can long endure the passing of these circumstances and the fading of this ideal. In the case of India, the specific question is: how is it possible to turn this conglomeration of peoples, religions, castes, and languages into a true nation?
Octavio Paz's answer to this conundrum is a rather conventional account of India's multifaceted identity. In my opinion, this first part doesn't add much to the standard literature written by journalists or foreigners passing through India. These are "glimpses of India: signs seen indistinctly, realities perceived between light and shadow". The author takes aim at the Hindi version of nationalism or Hindutva, which he sees as a "political corruption of religion" that borders on fanaticism. Believers from both sides may take offense at his affirmation that "neither Hinduism nor Islam had a Renaissance, as in Europe, and thus they had no Enlightenment." But before reacting with saintly indignation, one should apply the observation that the Mexican poet makes in discussing the relationship between Gandhi and Tagore: "Dialogue between a poet and a saint is difficult because a poet, before speaking, must hear others--that is to say, their language, which belongs to everyone and to no one. A saint speaks with God or with himself, two forms of silence."
Despite the distance between the two founts of ancient civilizations, Octavio Paz draws interesting parallels between Mexico and India. There are indeed a few surprising similarities between the two cultures. Paz notes the prominence of chilies in both Indian and Mexican cooking, and signals that the dish is of rather recent introduction in India. Another food probably of Mexican origin is the fruit known in India by its Spanish name: chico. Curry and mole are somewhat similar, and so are the Mexican tortillas and the Indian chapattis used as edible food-grabbing devices.
The similarities do not stop here. It is said that the costume of the China Poblana, a national symbol in Mexico, is an adaptation of the clothes worn by Gujarati women, which reached Mexico through Cochin and the Philippines. The mystical illuminations of Catarina de San Juan, a local saint from Puebla who confided to her Jesuit spiritual guides, are tinted with a powerful eroticism that echoes the sexually explicit visions of devotees or Krishna or of Sufi mystics. Not coincidentally, the famous religious woman from Mexico's colonial period was born a Hindu.
The second part of the book is an extended meditation over the poetry and artistic traditions of India. It is more personal in style, and brings the Mexican poet to his natural element. Classical Sanskrit poetry is little known in the West, where the translators and scholars have tended to concentrate on India's great religious and philosophical texts, on the epic poems (the Mahâbharata and the Râmâyana) and on the folklore stories and fables. And yet this poetry, which was written between the fourth and the twelfth centuries, is contemporary with the height of ancient Indian civilization. The classical Sanskrit short poem, like Greek or Latin, is an epigram. Like the Greek and Latin poems, it has eloquence, nobility, a sensuality of forms, violent and sublime passions. To read these poems is to experience clarity. But--also like Greek and Latin--it doesn't know how to remain silent. It never knew the secret of the Chinese and Japanese: insinuation, oblique allusion, ellipse.
Among the many poems chosen by Octavio Paz for their physical luxuriousness and their intellectual content, let us conclude with an excerpt by the lyric poet Vallana:
Beauty is not
in what the words say
but in that which they say without saying it:
not naked, but through a veil,
breasts become desirable.
POEM OF FRIENDSHIP
Friendship is a river and a ring
The river flows through the ring
The ring is an island in the river
The river says: Before there was no river,
After there is only a river
Before and after: that which erases friendship
Erases it? The river flows, forming the ring
Friendship erases time and thus it frees us
It is a river that, flowing, invents its rings
In the sands of the river our tracks are erased
In the sands we seek the river: where has it gone?
We live between oblivion and memory:
This moment is an island weathered by incessant time.
Paz looks beneath the surface of everything he writes about. You get a very strong sense of a man who is an original thinker. No supericial skimming or surface descriptions here.
I found his Mexican background particularly beneficial. It gives him a different angle from that of an Anglo. This a very thought-full book.