Octavio Paz's India -- palaces, poverty

March 23, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

"In Light of India," by Octavio Paz. Harcourt Brace. 202 pages. $22. Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger. The secret to Indian food, writes Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, is that it "is not a mixture of flavors, but rather a graduation of opposites." The progressions are somehow both pronounced and subtle, and come not in the succession of courses but all at once - and threaten to overwhelm you with sensation.

His observation about food is a metaphor for India, delightfully mundane and succinctly illuminating. It also reveals why his book is a pocket-sized gem to be pulled out and turned every which way in the light, the better to admire its shimmering insights about politics, religion, languages and art.

Now 81, poet and philosopher, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Paz encountered India in 1951 when he traveled to Bombay en route to serve as an undersecretary in the Mexican embassy in New Delhi.

He was almost immediately reassigned out of the country but never forgot that first meeting with India. Eleven years later, Paz returned as ambassador and remained until 1968. He traveled from coast to coast, from Madras in the south to the Himalayas, sat in ashrams and in palaces, talked with politicians and poets. It was in India that he first met, then married his wife. Over time, the culture marked his consciousness; its influence is woven throughout his poetry and prose.

In this, his 15th and most autobiographical book of prose, Paz does not describe the experiences of his stay, as he did in "Collected Poems 1957-1987" (published in 1987). He offers instead what he describes as a footnote for those poems - a slim, powerful volume more remarkable for the synthesis and elegance of its thoughts than for the sheer beauty of its words.

In one of the book's essays, Paz offers a quintessential description of the riotous first impressions experienced by the newly arrived visitor. Recalling his first moments in India, he succumbs to the kaleidoscopic rush and physicality of sensations and writes in rich, poetic stream-of-consciousness: "... 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."

Paz grapples with the exhausting, dangerous "centrifugal forces" India, including conflicts between Hinduism and Islam,

between reverence for ancient traditions and the growing pains inherent in the development of a modern nation. He draws parallels and contrasts between the cultures of Mexico -Western, third world - and India - third world and determinedly itself. He ponders differences between the Hindu and Christian concepts of time, the logic behind the caste system, the origins of the sweet/hot Mexican sauce mole and the discovery of zero in both ancient India and in pre-Columbian Mexico.

But he never forgets the earthly concerns that inspire the otherworldly musings. He allows the mundane to illuminate this chaotic, brightly lit culture of Hindus, Brahmans, Muslims, untouchables, palaces, poverty, lush and exotic vegetation, unbearable stench, extraordinary eroticism, ascetism, feasts and fasts. He offers readers a chance both to fall in love and to begin a dalliance with a nation that can be at once trying and endearing, appalling and beautiful. "In Light of India," he insists, is not for the experts; it is a book that is "the child not of knowledge but of love."

He is right, of course: This is not a book for those who think they know, but for those who revel in wonder.

Holly Selby is a cultural writer at The Sun, where she has also worked as a features reporter and editor. Before coming to Baltimore, she was a reporter and editor at the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer. She lived and studied in southwest India in the 1980s.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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