THROWING LIGHT ON INDIA
The late Octavio Paz’s collection of essays offers piercing insights and shows a deep understanding of India's place in the world.
When I embarked on this project in mid-February, I thought I’d flit weekly from one book to another, closely adhering to my chronology on the excel sheet that I’d prepared at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how impetuous I would be.
On Monday morning, I was at the local library in search of the translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran when I happened to discover yet another book that piqued my interest. I decided I had to read it this week. Personal projects like this often become a journey of self-discovery, too. Upon reading the late Octavio Paz, however, I’ve had yet another epiphany about how little I know. At 60 years of age, this is disheartening because there’s little time left.
Octavio Paz’s In Light Of India—translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger—is only 205 pages long. Yet it became a killer assignment for me during a week pockmarked with flu, general malaise, several extra-strength Tylenols and Nyquils, two Covid tests and a busy time with visiting family.
Every essay in Paz’s book is packed with observations from a mind that was clearly constantly renewing itself and making connections between disparate worlds. While reading his work, I learned that this late Nobel laureate won almost every international prize for his poetry and prose, including the Jerusalem Prize (1977), the Miguel de Cervantes Prize (1981), the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1982), and the Alexis de Tocqueville Prize (1989), and, of course, the grand Nobel Literature Prize (1990).
In Light of India conveys not only Paz’s love for India but also the ways in which his visits to the Indian subcontinent sculpted his mind. He traveled extensively through India during his tenure at the Embassy of Mexico in New Delhi and he engaged in discussions with the great intellects in the city such as writer Raja Rao and journalist Sham Lal.
In his essays, Paz grapples with controversial topics such as India’s caste system, Sanskrit poetry, religious diversity, multilingualism, and the notion of democracy in a country as diverse as India with a rich past. I was stunned by his lucidity, especially as he proceeded to answer the question that he posed at the outset: “How does a Mexican writer, at the end of the twentieth century, view the immense reality of India?” Paz believes that he understands Indians because their predicament matched his own. “During the years I lived in India, I noticed that Indians are very conscious of their differences from other people. It is an attitude shared by Mexicans. A consciousness that includes, for Indians, their difference from the other Southeast Asian nations, and, for us, from the other Latin Americans.”
This book is dense because Paz constantly makes references to a pantheon of philosophers, thinkers and literary mavens and strives to connect ideas. This makes the work much less accessible, too. With Google as a partner, however, readers will find the reading experience illuminating because there is something to uncover on page after page.
In his discussion about Mahatma Gandhi, Paz refers to his “blasphemous interpretation” of the Bhagavad Gita, which does “not condemn violence but exalts it as the dharma of the warrior”. Naturally, this led me to a hunt for Gandhi’s interpretation of this famous Hindu text. Once again, Paz had led me down another path and it would be a while longer before I finished the essay titled Gandhi: Center and Extreme.
What I find remarkable is Octavio Paz’s uncanny ability in explaining India to an Indian. Here is a man writing from the outside who offers explanations for things I’d been ignorant about (or been afraid to question) while living on the inside.
I found many breathtaking moments in his essay titled The Apsara and the Yakshi. Paz writes of his first experience arriving in the Bombay harbor by the early morning light in the year 1947.
“I can still breathe that humid air, see and hear the crowds in the streets, remember the brilliant colors of the saris, the murmur of voices, my dazzlement before the Trimurti in Elephanta.”
He understands a quality about India by tasting its food, that “its secret is not a mixture of flavors, but rather a graduation of opposites that are simultaneously pronounced and subtle. Not a succession, as in the West, but a conjunction. It is a logic that rules nearly all Indian creations.” Paz also proceeds to write about his experience with Indian classical music. After stating that his knowledge about music is paltry, and upon confessing that “in that art, as in so many other things, I continue to be a novice,” Paz summons his thoughts about an area that, seemingly, he does not understand. I have read these following lines many times over.
“Ragas are soliloquies and meditations, passionate melodies that draw circles and triangles in a mental space, a geometry of sounds that can turn a room into a fountain, a spring, a pool.”
The essay draws makes broad comparisons across world art and then drills down into the intricacies of Indian literature. This is a man who has heeded the words of Alexander Pope, that the more we learn, the less we know.
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Paz laments the neglect of Sanskrit poetry and says that the greatest of Sanskrit poetry “has eloquence, nobility, a sensuality of forms, violent and sublime passions.” He draws a parallel to Alexandrine poetry and to Hellenistic sculpture: “curves and muscles, full hips and firm breasts, broad masculine shoulders, women’s thighs and arms fit for wrapping around another body; vines and tendrils twining around a column or a virile torso.”
After lauding the excellent English translation of Kālidāsa’s works by Barbara Stoler Miller, Paz writes about a collection of short poems in Sanskrit called “centuries,” which are a hundred or more compositions on one theme. He also mentions the works of poets Amaru and Bhartṛhari. I discovered that Amaru’s Amaruśataka ranks as one of the finest lyrical poetry in the annals of Sanskrit literature, ranking with Kalidasa and Bhartṛhari’s Śṛngâraśataka. Thus he takes us through centuries of Indian poetry in just a few pages, gliding in and out of memorable passages written by these masters, finishing with his views on the lyrical verses of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda. He shares these lines by poet Vallana (who lived between 900 and 1100 AD), reminding us often that poetry is often about what is left unsaid.
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.
The book closes with Paz’s sadness as he leaves India by ship from Bombay in the year 1968 knowing that this will likely be his last visit to the country. Youth rebellions are reshaping the world and in his native country, too, he sees the forces of disillusionment and the demand for democratic reform. He knows he cannot work for his government anymore, especially after he learns that on October 2 of that year the Mexican Armed Forces opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians who were protesting the upcoming 1968 Summer Olympics. Paz and his wife Marie José board the ship after spending their last Sunday on the island of Elephanta.
SUNDAY ON THE ISLAND OF ELEPHANTA
by Octavio Paz translated by Eliot Weinberger
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 labor
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.