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India Today, in the Light of Octavio Paz

Poetry that listens to history can contribute to the recovery of the past, of the many pasts that make up the fragmented memory of this nation.

Octavio Paz in 1988. Credit: John Leffmann

Octavio Paz in 1988. Credit: John Leffmann

India has always learnt about itself, known itself, throughout its history, from outsiders. The records of two Chinese travellers, Fa-Hien and Xuanzang helped Ambedkar fix “the date of birth of untouchability”. The controversial writer, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, often approvingly quoted the Iranian scholar and traveller, Al-Biruni’s critical comments on India and Hindus. Outsiders, either in their praise or criticism, hold up another mirror before us, which helps us break our narcissism, and offers us the chance to look at ourselves through other eyes. Whether we choose to accept, ignore, welcome or reject this mirror, it exists as a document about ourselves we can’t wish away. The interest that made these travellers come to India to study it and write about their observations, shows how much the civilisation of this country fascinated people beyond its borders. The Belgian-born French poet and writer, Henri Michaux memorably wrote in his book, A Barbarian in Asia: “In India there is nothing to see – everything to interpret.”

When I once asked the Indian poet and critic, K. Satchidanandan, who comes to his mind when he thinks of poems that have been written on the various historical sites in India, he said, “Octavio Paz.” I asked him the question to find out if there were other poets apart from Paz, but clearly none. On Paz’s 103rd  birth anniversary, it is time to revisit his reflections on the country he much loved. Though Paz travelled to India first in 1952, he spent most years when he returned as the Mexican ambassador in 1962. He left in October 1968, resigning from his post in protest against the Mexican government’s massacre of student demonstrators at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the main square of Mexico City.

In the poetry he wrote during his stay in India, Paz merges Michaux’s distinction by interpreting what he sees. His poetic interests veer around the cultural topography of places, especially Delhi, where he lived. In ‘The Tomb of Amir Khusro’, Paz discovers,

Trees heavy with birds hold
the afternoon up with their hands

and ends by connecting the Sufi poet and musician to the language of a landscape that outlasts him:

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

Images and memory, past and present, story and life, jostle in the lines of the poem. The body of a poem is not its own body; a poem does not have a body of its own. A poem is a resurrection of the past in the body of a present where the poet lives, sees and imagines. The poem’s body consists of time, split into a dizzying row of images that hold together in the poem, “beggars, flowers, leprosy, marble”. For Paz, poetry is another vision of history that weaves sight and insight, with the poet as witness. Speaking about other things, other people the poet talks about himself, not merely as himself but as someone arrested by the images of time. It is his commitment to a poetics of the present that leads Paz to decipher the bewildering layers of history in India’s fragmented landscape, where he also discovers the fragments of time. As Paz explains in his Nobel Prize speech in 1990, “The search for the present is neither the pursuit of an earthly paradise nor that of a timeless eternity: it is the search for a real reality.” This present is also, “the source of presences”, where Paz discovers the essence of plurality.

Today, when India’s plurality is under threat, what would be a poetic response against it in the light of Octavio Paz? In ‘The Balcony’, he writes about Delhi,

You were covered with poems
your whole body was writing
remember
recover the words
you are beautiful
you know how to talk and sing and dance.

Poetry that listens to history can contribute to the recovery of the past, of the many pasts that make up the fragmented memory of this nation. These pasts are also presences, where different ways of praying, eating, dressing, and speaking move us with wonder. It is this sheer wonder of many pasts living together that excite Paz and his poetry in India. There are poems on Vrindaban, on Shiva and Parvati, as well as on Khusro and Humayun’s mausoleum. India is Hindu and Islamic, and to try erasing any one of those heritages would mean inflicting a monochromatic shade into the country’s history and culture. In the Light of India, Paz makes a decisive statement in favour of that heritage, asserting “India, as a country and as a history, is much greater than Hinduism.” He finds Hindu nationalism “a political corruption of religion,” and a “caricature of monotheism”, where it borrows from “the negative aspects… of Arab civilisation”, that only has place for “one God, one law and one ruler.” This leads the Hindu idea of the nation to imagine an India where “there is no place for Akbar or the poet Amir Khusro, the Red Fort in Delhi or the Taj Mahal in Agra, not to mention the Sikhs or the great Buddhist philosophers.”

Paz was deeply invested in learning about all these traditions. In Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Paz writes “Inside India, Hinduism and Buddhism were the protagonists of a dialogue. That dialogue was Indian civilisation”. But the dialogue had “degenerated into the monologue of Hinduism”. Paz commends Hinduism’s enormous powers that “digested all its heterodoxies and contradictions” but finds its “excessive affirmations” lacking the “counterweight of negativity” intrinsic to Buddhism.

Paz’s historical verdict on the waning of Hinduism’s creative energies is sharp enough: “It was not the invasions of the Huns that put an end to Indian civilisation but that civilisation’s inability to reconstruct itself or fecundate itself.” Many scholars have found reasons for the decline in the caste system. Though Paz addresses the question of caste only through a critical reading of Louis Dumont, one of his central conclusions is strikingly close to Ambedkar’s. In Alternating Currents, Paz writes, the “caste system lacks substance: it is a chain of relations.” Remember Ambedkar writing in The Annihilation of Caste, calls caste a “wrong relationship”, lacking any (philosophical) property of its own.

In India, as students are currently playing a key role against the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling regime and its ideological cohorts, Paz’s reflections are perhaps key to the context of our times.

“The ideology of the young.” Paz writes in relation to the Mexico of his era, “is often a simplification and an acritical reduction of the revolutionary traditions of the West.” He finds newness not so much in “the ideology of youth but their attitude, their sensibility more than their thought.” He admires the “splendid indifference” of youngsters in his time towards “selfish interests” and aiming for a “renunciation of privilege.” That time of rebellion has reappeared on the horizon, as free ideas as much as lives are in danger. But Paz’s warning for any revolutionary thought is equally pertinent: “Criticism of Marxism as an ideology is indispensable if there is to be a rebirth of revolutionary thought.” What is the way out? Paz has a simple and difficult suggestion to make: Self-criticism, imagination and everything to prevent the death of the soul.

(Octavio Paz was born on March 31, 1914)


Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.