Saturday, February 23, 2013

Paz in India: An Inescapable Attraction

“The dream of Brahma, what we call reality, is a mirage, a nightmare. To wake is to discover the unreality of the world.”   Octavio Paz

The great Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz, first arrived in India in late 1951 as a minor functionary in Mexico’s first diplomatic legation to the newly independent state.  He stayed six months.  It was not until 1962 that he returned, this time as a world-renowned poet and Mexican ambassador. He was to remain there, in India, for more than six years, travelling the length and breadth of the country, and engrossing himself in the study of Indian philosophy religion, culture, and art, a highly influential period of his life described by Paz himself as: “After being born, the most important thing that has happened to me.”


 “When he first went there,” writes Raleigh Trevelyan about Paz, in his 1997 review of A Tale of Two Gardens, “like so many newcomers, he had been overwhelmed and bewildered by the country's vastness and complexity; he had felt ‘dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea,’ but also an ‘inescapable attraction.’” Anyone who has ever travelled to India is sure to recognize these sensations. Paz himself, in his book In Light of India, describes his first day in India, in Bombay (now Mumbai):   

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...

The unreality of what Paz saw inspired him, in 1952, to write what was to be the first poem of this marvelous collection, a lengthy, sensual record of his experience in the teeming holy city of Muttra or Mathura, the birthplace of the god Krishna, as well as a meditation on the way the architecture of the past still haunts the present.  Comprised largely of short poems, most inspired by the towns, tombs, and temples to which he traveled, A Tale of Two Gardens includes Paz’s own translation of ten epigrams from the Sanskrit and ends with the long and beautiful poem from which the collection itself draws its name. 

After a visit to a little mohalla in Delhi, known today as Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin, Paz wrote:

The Tomb of Amir Khusru

Trees heavy with birds hold
the afternoon up with their hands.
Arches and patios. A tank of water,
poison green, between red walls.
A corridor leads to the sanctuary:
beggars, flowers, leprosy, marble.

Tombs, two names, their stories:
Nizam Uddin, the wandering theologian,
Amir Khusru, the parrot’s tongue.
The saint and the poet.  A grim
star spouts from a cupola.
Slime sparkles in the pool.

Amir Khusru, parrot or mockingbird:
the two halves of each moment,
muddy sorrow, voice of light.
Syllables, wandering fires,
vagabond architectures:
each poem is time, and it burns.

* Translated by Eliot Weinberger

Octavio Paz (1914-1998) was born in Mexico City. On his father's side, his grandfather was a prominent liberal intellectual and one of the first authors to write a novel with an expressly Indian theme. Thanks to his grandfather's extensive library, Paz came into early contact with literature. Like his grandfather, his father was also an active political journalist who, together with other progressive intellectuals, joined the agrarian uprisings led by Emiliano Zapata.

Paz began to write at an early age, and in 1937, he travelled to Valencia, Spain, to participate in the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers. Upon his return to Mexico in 1938, he became one of the founders of the journal, Taller (Workshop), a magazine which signaled the emergence of a new generation of writers in Mexico as well as a new literary sensibility. In 1943, he travelled to the USA on a Guggenheim Fellowship where he became immersed in Anglo-American Modernist poetry; two years later, he entered the Mexican diplomatic service and was sent to France, where he wrote his fundamental study of Mexican identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, and actively participated (together with Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret) in various activities and publications organized by the surrealists. In 1962, Paz was appointed Mexican ambassador to India: an important moment in both the poet's life and work, as witnessed in various books written during his stay there, especially, The Grammarian Monkey and East Slope. In 1968, however, he resigned from the diplomatic service in protest against the government's bloodstained suppression of the student demonstrations in Tlatelolco during the Olympic Games in Mexico. After that, Paz continued his work as an editor and publisher, having founded two important magazines dedicated to the arts and politics: Plural (1971-1976) and Vuelta. In 1980, he was named honorary doctor at Harvard. Recent prizes include the Cervantes award in 1981 - the most important award in the Spanish-speaking world - and the prestigious American Neustadt Prize in 1982. In 1990 he was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature.

At Tale of Two Gardens: Poems From India 1952-1995 is published by New Directions Books.


Peter Adam Nash

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