In Light of India

In Light of India

by Octavio Paz, Eliot Weinberger

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“One of the most brilliant and original essayists in any language” (Washington Post Book World) reflects on the six years he spent in India as Mexican ambassador-and reveals how the people and culture of that extraordinary land changed his life. Translated by Eliot Weinberger.
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“One of the most brilliant and original essayists in any language” (Washington Post Book World) reflects on the six years he spent in India as Mexican ambassador-and reveals how the people and culture of that extraordinary land changed his life. Translated by Eliot Weinberger.

Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe among the finest essayists of our time.
Edward Neuert

In 1951, Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet who would win the Nobel Prize in 1990, was leading a romantic 20th century artistic existence: Posted to his country's embassy in Paris, the minor diplomat and self-described "young barbarian poet" had plenty of time to write and immerse himself in the artistic and philosophical milieu of the city's cafes and bars. And he was blessedly forgotten by his superiors. The usual two-year call to transfer posts never came, as six wonderful years passed by. Then someone in the Foreign Office lightly shuffled a file, and Paz found himself abruptly transferred to the new Mexican mission in India. His brief stay in that country (he was soon transferred again, to Tokyo) and his later stint as ambassador to India, from 1962 to 1968, formed the basis for a cultural relationship he explores in his new book, "In Light of India." It is a precise, learned and lucid series of essays.

Paz takes great pains to remind his readers that In Light of India is not a memoir, "but rather an essay that attempts ... to answer a question that goes beyond personal anecdotes: How does a Mexican writer, at the end of the Twentieth Century, view the immense reality of India?" Paz's reflection is a subtle introduction, a sort of intellectual Baedeker for any Westerner whose knowledge of India is no deeper than that of, say, the Beatles when they deplaned into the arms of the maharishi. He does this with a well-balanced examination of both the strange and the familiar, finding commonalities between Mexico and India in the everyday realm of food -- the simple chili, so crucial to both cuisines -- and the more complicated arena of politics, where both India and Mexico have thrown off colonial rule and struggled to build a nation. Paz saves his most heartfelt writing for Indian art, where the precision and feeling of a poet shine through in, for instance, descriptions of Hindu carvings: "Shiva smiles from a beyond where time is a small drifting cloud."

It's rare that the acknowledgments in a book will have much effect on a reader, but as you scan the names of the well-known and unknown Paz thanks for introducing him to Indian society, you simply can't help thinking what a book his true memoir would be. For all the accomplishment of this collection of essays, it remains a slightly removed construct, a well-paved passage to the mind of India; there's a memoir within Paz's reach, full of character and incident, that might take us into its immense heart. -- Salon

NY Times Book Review
Captures the observations of a Nobel laureate who spent six years as Mexico's Ambassador to India in the 1960's.
Kirkus Reviews
A personal discourse on India, broaching topics cultural, spiritual, and historical, by the Nobel laureate.

While employed as a diplomat, the Mexican-born poet lived in India for six years during the 1960s. Neither a memoir nor a scholarly treatment, Paz's work is instead a meditative response to "the question that India poses to everyone who visits it." The question for Paz in particular: "How does a Mexican writer, at the end of the twentieth century, view the immense reality of India?" Answering the question, he works most fruitfully when drawing comparisons between Mexican and Indian habits. His range is instructive. For example, Paz writes about the uses of chili peppers in Indian and Mexican cooking, observing the kinship between mole sauce and Indian mola, a type of curry. Later, thinking on a larger scale, he compares the historical sense of each nation: "Neither the Indians nor the Mexicans deny their past; they cover it over and repaint it. It is a process that is not entirely conscious, and that is its effectiveness, as a protection from criticism. It is a psychological vaccine." Paz also considers literary and religious matters at length, writing provocatively about eros in classical Sanskrit poetry and the paradoxes of Hindu morality: "Indian tradition cannot conceive of freedom as a political ideal or incorporate it into the fabric of society. Not only is such freedom incompatible with the caste system; India lacks a tradition of thinking critically." This quote also illustrates the drawbacks of his approach, though, which include a tolerance for cliché and a grandiosely oracular intellectual swagger. Some of his more cerebral explorations here also suffer from hubris, intermittent condescension, and an unconcern for triteness of expression (in translation, at least).

One pines, perhaps wickedly, for a candid Indian response to Paz's intelligence and his bombast.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Meet the Author

Octavio Paz was born in 1914 and died in 1998. The author of eighteen books, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

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