In Light of India


“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.

Nobel laureate Octavio Paz presents a celebration of India into which he brings his poetic insight and voluminous knowledge to bear on the country's landscape, culture, and history. Startling, illuminating, and always ...

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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.

Nobel laureate Octavio Paz presents a celebration of India into which he brings his poetic insight and voluminous knowledge to bear on the country's landscape, culture, and history. Startling, illuminating, and always engaging, In Light of India is a memorable excursion.

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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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156005784
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/28/1998
  • Pages: 218
  • Sales rank: 805,363
  • Product dimensions: 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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Table of Contents

Bombay 3
Delhi 14
Return 20
Rama and Allah 37
The Cosmic Matrix 55
Babel 67
Feasts and Fasts 75
The Singularity of Indian History 90
Gandhi: Center and Extreme 101
Nationalism, Secularism, Democracy 118
The Apsara and the Yakshi 137
Chastity and Longevity 164
The Critique of Liberation 171
The Contraptions of Time 185
Farewell 197
Acknowledgments 207
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First Chapter



In 1951 I was living in Paris. I had a modest job at the Mexican Embassy, having arrived six years earlier, in December 1945. The mediocrity of my position perhaps explains why, after two or three years, I had not been transferred to another post, as is the diplomatic custom. My superiors had forgotten me, and I secretly thanked them. I was trying to write and, most of all, I was exploring the city that is probably the most beautiful example of the genius of our civilization: solid without heaviness, huge without gigantism, tied to the earth but with a desire for flight. A city where moderation rules the excesses of both the body and the head with the same gentle and unyielding authority. In its most auspicious moments--a square, an avenue, a group of buildings--tension turns to harmony, a pleasure for the eyes and for the mind. Exploration and recognition: in my walks and rambles I discovered new places and neighborhoods, but there were others that I recognized, not by sight but from novels and poems. Paris for me is a city that, more than invented, is reconstructed by memory and the imagination. I saw a few friends, French and foreign, sometimes in their apartments, but usually in the cafes and bars. In Paris, as in other Latin cities, one lives more in the streets than at home. I met with friends with whom I shared artistic and intellectual affinities, and was immersed in the literary life of those days, with its clamorous philosophical and political debates. But my secret obsession was poetry: to write it, think it, live it. Excited by so many contradictory thoughts, feelings, and emotions, I was living each moment so intensely that it never occurred to me that this way of life would ever change. The future--that is, the unexpected--had almost completely evaporated.

One day the Ambassador called me to his office and, without saying a word, handed me a cable: I had been transferred. The news was bewildering and painful. It was normal that I should be sent elsewhere, but I was devastated to leave Paris. The reason for my transfer was that the government of Mexico had formally established relations with India, which had gained its independence in 1947, and now was planning to open a mission in Delhi. Knowing that I was being sent to India consoled me a little: rituals, temples, cities whose names evoked strange tales, motley and multicolored crowds, women with feline grace and dark and shining eyes, saints, beggars.... That same morning I learned that the person who had been named ambassador was Emilio Portes Gil, a well-known and influential man who had once been the President of Mexico. Besides the Ambassador, the staff would consist of a consul, an under-secretary (myself), and two counselors.

Why had they chosen me? No one told me, and I never would learn the reason. But there were rumors that my transfer had come at the suggestion of the poet Jaime Torres Bodet, then Director General of UNESCO, to Manuel Tello, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. It seemed that Torres Bodet was disturbed by some of my literary activities, and had been particularly displeased by my participation, with Albert Camus and Maria Casares, in an event commemorating the anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (July 18, 1936), and organized by a group that was close to the Spanish anarchists. Although the Mexican government did not have relations with Franco--quite the opposite: it was the only country in the world that had an official ambassador to the Spanish Republic in Exile--Torres Bodet thought that my presence at that political-cultural gathering, and some of the things I said there, were "improper." I will never know if this story is true, but years later, at a dinner, I heard Torres Bodet make a curious confession. Talking about writers who had served in the diplomatic corps--Alfonso Reyes and Jose Gorostiza in Mexico, Paul Claudel and Saint-John Perse in France, among others--he added, "But one must avoid, at all costs, having two writers in the same embassy."

I said good-bye to my friends. Henri Michaux gave me a little anthology of poems by Kabir, Krishna Riboud a print of the goddess Durga, and Kostas Papaioannou a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, which became my spiritual guide to the world of India. In the middle of my preparations, I received a letter from Mexico with instructions from the new Ambassador: I was to meet him in Cairo. With the rest of the staff, we would continue on to Port Said, where we would board a Polish ship, the Batory, that would take us to Bombay. The news was strange--normally we would have flown directly to Delhi--but I was delighted. It would give me a glimpse of Cairo, its museums and pyramids, and I would cross the Red Sea and see Aden before reaching Bombay.

When we arrived in Cairo, Portes Gil told us that he had changed his mind and would fly to Delhi. Later I realized that he had simply wanted to visit some places in Egypt before taking the plane to India. But in my case it was too late to change the plans: the steamship company couldn't refund my ticket quickly, and I didn't have the money for the plane. I decided to go by ship. Those were the last days of the reign of King Farouk and there were many riots--the famous Shepherd's Hotel was burned down soon after. The road from Cairo to Port Said was blocked at various points and considered unsafe. With two other passengers, I traveled in a car flying the Polish flag and, perhaps thanks to it, we arrived without incident.

The Batory was a German ship given to Poland as part of the war reparations. The crossing was pleasant, although the monotony of the passage across the Red Sea was at times oppressive: to the left and right, arid and barely undulating hills stretched out; the sea was grayish and calm. I thought: Nature too can be boring. The arrival in Aden broke the monotony. A picturesque highway through great rocks led from the port to the city. I wandered enchanted through the noisy bazaars, full of Levantines, Chinese, and Indians, and the neighboring streets and alleyways. The colorful crowds, the veiled women with eyes as deep as the water in a well, the faces of the passers-by as anonymous as those in any city, but dressed in oriental clothes; beggars, busy people, groups talking loudly, laughter, and, amid the throng, silent Arabs with noble features and a forbidding demeanor. Hanging from their belts, an empty sheath for a knife or dagger. They were desert people who had to give up their weapons before entering the city. Only in Afghanistan have I seen a people with similar grace and dignity.

Life on board the Batory was lively, the group heterogeneous. The strangest passenger was a maharajah with a monastic face, who was surrounded by obsequious servants. Due to some ritual vow, he avoided all contact with foreigners, and in the dining room his chair had ropes around it to keep the other passengers from coming too close. Also on board was an elderly woman who was the widow of the sculptor Brancusi; she'd been invited to India by a magnate who admired her husband. There was a group of nuns, most of them Polish, who prayed every morning at five in a mass officiated by two Polish priests. They were on their way to Madras, to a convent founded by their order. Although the Communists had taken power in Poland, the authorities on the ship pretended not to notice these religious activities, or perhaps their tolerance was part of governmental policy at the time. It was moving to hear the mass sung by those nuns and priests on the morning we arrived in Bombay. Before us rose the coast of an immense and strange country populated by millions of infidels, some of whom worshiped masculine and feminine idols with powerful bodies or animal features, and others who prayed to the faceless God of Islam. I did not dare to ask them if they realized that their arrival in India was a late episode in the great failure of Christianity in these lands.... A couple who immediately attracted my attention were a pretty young Hindu woman and her husband, a young American. We quickly fell into conversation, and by the end of the voyage were good friends. She was Santha Rama Rau, the well-known writer and author of two notable adaptations, for the theater and for film, of Passage to India. He was Faubian Bowers, who had been an aide-de-camp to General MacArthur and was the author of a book on the Japanese kabuki theater.

We arrived in Bombay on an early morning in November 1951. I remember the intensity of the light despite the early hour, and my impatience at the sluggishness with which the boat crossed the quiet bay. An enormous mass of liquid mercury, barely undulating; vague hills in the distance; flocks of birds; a pale sky and scraps of pink clouds. As the boat moved forward, the excitement of the passengers grew. Little by little the white-and-blue architecture of the city sprouted up, a stream of smoke from a chimney, the ocher and green stains of a distant garden. An arch of stone appeared, planted on a dock and crowned with four little towers in the shape of pine trees. Someone leaning on the railing beside me exclaimed, "The Gateway of India!" He was an Englishman, a geologist bound for Calcutta. We had met two days before, and I had discovered that he was W. H. Auden's brother. He explained that the arch was a monument erected to commemorate the visit of King George V and his wife, Queen Mary, in 1911. It seemed to me a fantasy version of the Roman arches; later I learned it was inspired by an architectural style that had flourished in Gujarat, an Indian state, in the sixteenth century. Behind the monument, floating in the warm air, was the silhouette of the Taj Mahal Hotel, an enormous cake, a delirium of the fin-de-siecle Orient fallen like a gigantic bubble, not of soap but of stone, on Bombay's lap. I rubbed my eyes: was the hotel getting closer or farther away? Seeing my surprise, Auden explained to me that the hotel's strange appearance was due to a mistake: the builders could not read the plans that the architect had sent from Paris, and they built it backward, its front facing the city, its back turned to the sea. The mistake seemed to me a deliberate one that revealed an unconscious negation of Europe and the desire to confine the building forever in India. A symbolic gesture, much like that of Cortes burning the boats so that his men could not leave. How often have we experienced similar temptations?

Once on land, surrounded by crowds shouting at us in English and various native languages, we walked fifty meters along the filthy dock and entered the ramshackle customs building, an enormous shed. The heat was unbearable and the chaos indescribable. I found, not easily, my few pieces of luggage, and subjected myself to a tedious interrogation by a customs official. Free at last, I left the building and found myself on the street, in the middle of an uproar of porters, guides, and drivers. I managed to find a taxi, and it took me on a crazed drive to my hotel, the Taj Mahal.

If this book were a memoir and not an essay, I would devote pages to that hotel. It is real and chimerical, ostentatious and comfortable, vulgar and sublime. It is the English dream of India at the beginning of the century, an India populated by dark men with pointed mustaches and scimitars at their waists, by women with amber-colored skin, hair and eyebrows as black as crows' wings, and the huge eyes of lionesses in heat. Its elaborately ornamented archways, its unexpected nooks, its patios, terraces, and gardens are both enchanting and dizzying. It is a literary architecture, a serialized novel. Its passageways are the corridors of a lavish, sinister, and endless dream. A setting for a sentimental tale or a chronicle of depravity. But that Taj Mahal no longer exists: it has been modernized and degraded, as though it were a motel for tourists from the Midwest.... A bellboy in a turban and an immaculate white jacket took me to my room. It was tiny but agreeable. I put my things in the closet, bathed quickly, and put on a white shirt. I ran down the stairs and plunged into the streets. There, awaiting me, was an unimagined reality:

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,

torrents of cars, people coming and going, skeletal cows with no owners, beggars, creaking carts drawn by enervated oxen, rivers of bicycles,

a survivor of the British Raj, in a meticulous and threadbare white suit, with a black umbrella,

another beggar, four half-naked would-be saints daubed with paint, red betel stains on the sidewalk,

horn battles between a taxi and a dusty bus, more bicycles, more cows, another half-naked saint,

turning the corner, the apparition of a girl like a half-opened flower,

gusts of stench, decomposing matter, whiffs of pure and fresh perfumes,

stalls selling coconuts and slices of pineapple, ragged vagrants with no job and no luck, a gang of adolescents like an escaping herd of deer,

women in red, blue, yellow, deliriously colored saris, some solar, some nocturnal, dark-haired women with bracelets on their ankles and sandals made not for the burning asphalt but for fields,

public gardens overwhelmed by the heat, monkeys in the cornices of the buildings, shit and jasmine, homeless boys,

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 stalk, 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,

a magnificent eucalyptus in the desolation of a garbage dump, an enormous billboard in an empty lot with a picture of a movie star: full moon over the sultan's terrace,

more decrepit walls, whitewashed walls covered with political slogans written in red and black letters I couldn't read,

the gold and black grillwork of a luxurious villa with a contemptuous inscription: EASY MONEY; more grilles even more luxurious, which allowed a glimpse of an exuberant garden; on the door, an inscription in gold on the black marble,

in the violently blue sky, in zigzags or in circles, the flights of seagulls or vultures, crows, crows, crows...

As night fell, I returned to my hotel, exhausted. I had dinner in my room, but my curiosity was greater than my fatigue: after another bath, I went out again into the city. I found many white bundles lying on the sidewalks: men and women who had no home. I took a taxi and drove through deserted districts and lively neighborhoods, streets animated by the twin fevers of vice and money. I saw monsters and was blinded by flashes of beauty. I strolled through infamous alleyways and stared at the bordellos and little shops: painted prostitutes and transvestites with glass beads and loud skirts. I wandered toward Malabar Hill and its serene gardens. I walked down a quiet street to its end and found a dizzying vision: there, below, the black sea beat against the rocks of the coast and covered them with a rippling shawl of foam. I took another taxi back to my hotel, but I did not go in. The night lured me on, and I decided to take another walk along the great avenue that ran beside the docks. It was a zone of calm. In the sky the stars burned silently. I sat at the foot of a huge tree, a statue of the night, and tried to make an inventory of all I had seen, heard, smelled, and felt: dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea, inescapable attraction. What had attracted me? 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 retrospect, my immediate fascination doesn't strike me as strange: in those days I was a young barbarian poet. Youth, poetry, and barbarism are not opposed to one another: in the gaze of a barbarian there is innocence; in that of a young man, an appetite for life; and in a poet's gaze, astonishment. The next day I called Santha and Faubian. They invited me for a drink at their house. They were living with Santha's parents in an elegant mansion that, like the others in Bombay, was surrounded by a garden. We sat on the terrace, around a table with refreshments. Soon after, her father joined us, a courtly man who had been the first Indian ambassador to Washington and had recently left his post. On hearing my nationality, he burst out laughing and asked: "And is Mexico one of the stars or one of the stripes?" I turned red and was about to answer rudely, when Santha intervened with a smile: "Forgive us, Octavio. The Europeans know nothing of geography, and we know nothing of history." Her father apologized. "It was only a joke.... We too, not so long ago, were also a colony." I thought of my compatriots: they say similar nonsense when talking about India. Santha and Faubian asked me if I had visited any of the famous sites. They told me to go to the museum and, above all, to visit the island of Elephanta.

The next day I went back to the dock and bought a ticket for the small boat that runs between Bombay and Elephanta. With me were various foreign tourists and a few Indians. The sea was calm; we crossed the bay under a cloudless sky and arrived at the small island in less than an hour. Tall white cliffs, and a rich and startling vegetation. We walked up a gray and red path that led to the mouth of an enormous cave, and I entered a world made of shadows and sudden brightness. The play of the light, the vastness of the space and its irregular form, the figures carved on the walls: all of it gave the place a sacred character, sacred in the deepest meaning of the word. In the shadows were the powerful reliefs and statues, many of them mutilated by the fanaticism of the Portuguese and the Muslims, but all of them majestic, solid, made of a solar material. Corporeal beauty, turned into living stone. Divinities of the earth, sexual incarnations of the most abstract thought, gods that were simultaneously intellectual and carnal, terrible and peaceful. Shiva smiles from a beyond where time is a small drifting cloud, and that cloud soon turns into a stream of water, and the stream into a slender maiden who is spring itself: the goddess Parvati. The divine couple are the image of a happiness that our mortal condition grants us only for a moment before it vanishes. That palpable, tangible, eternal world is not for us. A vision of a happiness that is both terrestrial and unreachable. This was my initiation into the art of India.

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