Friday, May 18, 2018

Paz on India


It is interesing to view India through the eyes of Octavio Paz. 

A few days back, a tweet got me searching for the book "In Light of India" at the Dayal Singh Public Library. I had not heard of the book so when went across and mentioned the name of the author to Pankaj, the ever helpful librarian, he looked as though I had reminded him of along forgotten childhood memory. And when he pulled out the book from a corner bookshelf, I understood why. The last time anybody had borrowed this book was in 1997 - more than 20 years ago!

The book itself is a monograph of memories from 1954, the time when Paz was posted to India as a young diplomat. As can be expected, he reflects on the prevailing attitudes and biases of the time: an admiration for Nehru and the "secular" Congress party, and wariness towards the "Hindu nationalist" BJP; a sense of bewilderment over the cacophony of colors, smells that greet a visitor, and the diverse set of people who called themselves citizens of a newly minted republic. One has come to expect such reactions from visiting foreigners but Paz turns out to be slightly different.

Unlike the typical Western view of India what you get here is a unique view of a South American poet and traveller. India's caste system, for instance, is a puzzle he tries to decipher - how did it manage to survive two millennia of foreign invasions and proseletizing? 
"Castes... are not only cooperatives, such as ours, but also solidarity groups, genuine fraternities...this fabric of religious, economic, political, territorial, linguistic, and familial relations gives the castes their extraordinary solidity... Hinduism does not convert individuals; it absorbs communities and tribes, their gods and rites."

Paz notes the strong influence of Mesoamerica in India's cuisine - the word "chili" is of Nahuatl origin for the plant originally came from the Americas...- Another Mexican import "Chico-zapote" is called Chiku is North India and Sapota in the South!

He dives deep into classical Indian poetry and is amazed to find in Vidyakara's anthology of poetry, erotic poems written by Dharmakirti, a Buddhist philosopher and logician who lived in the 7th century.

Yet, Octavio Paz has his failings. The clarity with which he looks at India clouds up when he compares the influence of 'Western Civilization' on Latin America. In his view, the Spanish conquistadors did a great thing by uniting the various tribes in South America, and weaning them away from cycles of war and blood-sacrifice, and introducing to them a new religion in which "sacrifice of a god who became man and spilled his blood to redeem the world". Not a word about the massacre of the Mayans, Zapotecs, Aztecs and Teotihuacanians, or the systematic destruction of a unique civilization, its unique art and architecture, or of the shiploads of gold and silver looted and taken away to enrich Europe! 

If the world is a kaliedoscope, the designs and patterns seen by Paz are unique, but his book leaves you feeling a bit shortchanged, of expecting a real South American perspective, and finding instead, merely another European dressed in a poncho.

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LINKS

- GoodReads - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11708.In_Light_of_India

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