Manan Kapoor, on the immense reality of India through the eyes of the Mexican writer and why it is relevant to re-look at ourselves through the vantage point of this outsider
Nineteen years ago, Mexican author and Poet reflected about India in his book, In Light of India, calling it the child not of knowledge, but of love. For him, India was nostalgia—everything he saw here was a re-emergence of forgotten pictures of Mexico. Such confessions made it obvious that India had an overwhelming impact that on the creative side of Paz. Proof of which are his staggering poems. Eliot Weinberger, Paz’s translator, noted that, “No other Western writer has been as submerged in India as Paz, “ he added, “All the more amazingly, maybe not since Victor Segalan in China when the new century rolled over, has a Western artist been so master on, experienced in, and composed so widely about a social other”.
Overwhelmed by the intensity of the country, Paz questions his attraction and says, “It was difficult to say, human kind cannot bear much reality. Yes, the excess of reality had become an unreality, but that unreality had turned suddenly into a balcony from which I peered into – what? Into that which is beyond and still has no name.”
In the introduction to his book, Paz reflects upon his first impressions of Mumbai (he arrived in 1951) in a manner much similar to Claude Lévi-Strauss describing the tristesse that he experienced in Istanbul.
Waves of heat, huge grey and red buildings, a Victorian
London growing among palm trees and banyans like a
recurrent nightmare, leprous walls, wide and beautiful
avenues, huge unfamiliar trees, stinking alleyways
a banyan, image of the rain as the cactus is the emblem
of aridity, and, leaning against a wall, a stone
daubed with red paint, at its feet a few faded flowers:
the silhouette of the monkey god,
the laughter of a young girl, slender as a lily stark, a
leper sitting under the statue of an eminent Parsi,
in the doorway of a shack, watching everyone with
indifference, an old man with a noble face,
Paz’s poetry has been read and dissected worldwide, but for an Indian reader, Octavio Paz is not just a Mexican writer who wrote in Spanish, but a champion among the most acclaimed writers of twentieth century who is actually connected with the way of life, human progress, theory, workmanship and ethos of India.
Although Paz first visited India in 1951 for a short while, the longest he stayed was in New Delhi from 1962-68 as the Mexican Ambassador to India. These six years had a profound influence on his psyche. It was here in India that Paz met Marie Jose Tramini, a French woman who he went on to marry, under a neem tree in the garden of the Mexican embassy. He considered this a ‘second birth’ and it was with her that he awakened to the many wonders of India; he travelled for work as well as leisure. His poetry is reflective of both.
The central premise of his poems is the idea of opposites, whether it is between the East and West, passion and reason, society and the individual, word and meaning. Paz wrote poems wherever he went—from Taxila to Ceylon. Some of his most profound poems have been by the tombs of saints and poets, writers such as Nizamuddin Aulia, Amir Khusro, and Humayun.
To the debate of wasps
the dialectic of monkeys
twitterings of statistics
(high flame of rose
formed out of stone and air and birds
time in repose above the water)
– The Mausoleum of Humayun
Paz called Delhi unreal, the city with “two tall syllables,” probably insinuating the two vowels in the word दिल्ली, “like Gothic architecture of nineteenth century London, or the Babylon of Cecil B. DeMille. That is to say, it is an assemblage of images more than buildings.” As always, even in his account of places and monuments, Paz emerged as a sharp observer. The Red Fort impressed Paz “as powerful as a fort and as graceful as a palace”. Qutab Minar was “a prodigious stone tree, a tower that combines the height, solidity and slender elegance”.
The visually rich and unpunctuated poem isn’t just Paz’s reflections about the historic city he was living in, through the city, the poet talks about the silences and thoughts that occurred to him on an insomniac night.
in the middle of the night
not adrift from centuries
not a spreading out
like a fixed idea
to the centre of incandescence
Two tall syllables
surrounded by insomnia and sand
I say them in a low voice
the hour grows
When the Mexican government suppressed the student rebellion, resulting in the death of many on October 2nd, 1968, Paz resigned his post as a sign of protest. Thus his official relationship with India came to an end. Paz and his wife spent the last Sunday on the Elephanta Islands and relived what they had felt years ago. They thought that they were witnessing all of that for the last time, and he wrote that “it was as though we were leaving ourselves.” He talks about time, in the last part of his book, and how it was only through a prayer that he could relive the experience of India.
Shiva and Parvati:
we worship you
not as gods
but as images
of the divinity of man
You are what man makes and is not,
what man will be
when he has served the sentence of hard
your four arms are four rivers,
four jets of water.
Your whole being is a fountain
where the lovely Parvati bathes,
where she rocks like a graceful boat.
The sea beats beneath the sun:
it is the great lips of Shiva laughing;
the sea is ablaze:
it is the steps of parvati on the waters
Shiva and Parvati:
the woman who is my wife
ask you for nothing, nothing
that comes from the other world:
the light on the sea,
the barefoot light on the sleeping land and sea.
In 1984, Paz got an opportunity to visit India again at the request of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She wanted him to give a lecture in honour of Jawaharlal Nehru, whom Paz knew well after his time as the Mexican ambassador. One day before the lecture, Gandhi was assassinated. The lecture was suspended but officials insisted that Paz come for a two week visit but he declined. In 1985, Paz came to India for the last time, this time on the invitation of Rajeev Gandhi.
Some years later he published In the Light of India, perhaps the biggest takeaway from this book are his statements where he declared that the country an “immense cauldron,” whose personal as well as cultural history was much greater than Hinduism alone. Calling Hindu nationalism”a political corruption of religion”, stating that the idea was borrowed from the Islamic Arab civilisation which was a “caricature of monotheism.” In such an India he wrote,“there is no place for Akbar or the poet Amir Khusro, the Red Fort in Delhi or the Taj Mahal in Agra, not to mention the Sikhs or the great Buddhist philosophers.”
And that would be robbing it of its history, its traditions, its culture, no matter how vast and complex. This is a perspective we ought to remember, especially in times such as these.
You can buy the book here