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Sunday, December 16, 2007

In Light Of India

A review on In Light of India: Octavio Paz.

It rained.
The hour is an enormous eye.
Inside it, we come and go like reflections.
The river of music
Enters my blood.
If I say body, it answers wind.
If I say earth, it answers where?

The world, a double blossom, opens:
Sadness of having come,
Joy of being here.

I walk lost in my own center.

As a reader I couldn’t help but notice Paz’s polemics on existential and reflective differences between civilizations and how oriental was time as a concept in his poems and other writings. His inimical vision of history as an imagination of time had had its parallel in ancient Indian philosophies. Isn’t he now being rediscovered for his scathing criticism of modern democracies for their development model and establishments of greed?

Having seen him establish how *Mexican civilization has come to a stasis, forgo a glorious culture to withdraw into oneself and self-deprecatingly look up to its neighbor in the north, it was fairly easy to recognize Octavio Paz’ affinities and opinions on India in his book – In Light of India. (* from Labyrinth of Solitude)

As anyone who visited India would vouch, India gets through your senses much before brain begins to register all your pre-conceived notions of her. You will realize that the teeming reality around you will soon blur its contour to leave you in daze. Paz spoke about the India he encountered in the bustling streets of Bombay of yore:

“I put my things in the closet (at Hotel Taj Mahal), 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 Victorean 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, rivers of bicycles,

in the doorway of a shack, watching everyone with indifference an old man with a noble face,

Another beggar, four half-naked would-be saints daubed with paint, red beetel saints on the side walk,

Turning the corner, the apparition of a girl like a half opened flower,

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,

A magnificent eucalyptus in the desolation of a garbage dump, an enormous billboard in an empty lot with a picture of a movie star,

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

As night fell I returned to my hotel, exhausted…but my curiosity was greater than my fatigue. I went out again into the city. I found many white bundles lying on the side walks: men and women who had no home…I saw monsters and was blinded by the 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.

Paz goes back to his hotel, but decides to take another walk towards the coast and there he tries to take inventory of all that he had seen, heard, smelled and felt. He thought of dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, enthusiasm, nausea and an inescapable attraction to explain his state of mind as a young barbarian poet.

If we chop and change some images here and there, I guess the contemporary India despite the double digit economic growth would not be too far away. Paz gets down parsing his newly found exhilaration in the rest of the book which took decades to complete. You don’t read Octavio Paz for your academic exercise, do you? You read for his insights and sometimes opinions which you may or may not agree.

Even in the opening chapter we can see Paz’s sense of history and his uncanny ability to glean valid archetypes. According to him, wandering in New Delhi is like passing through the pages of Victor Hugo, Walter Scott or Alexander Dumas and that it was the most ancient of cities - Indraprastha of the epic Mahabharatha where legendary battles of power and ethics played out; and also of the serene Muslim mausoleums. He writes about the unforgettable moment when he wandered into a tiny empty mosque whose walls were made of marble and inscribed with passages from the Qur’an. Above, the blue of an impassive and benevolent sky, only interrupted, from time to time, by a flock of green parakeets. He stayed there for hours. According to him it was a vision of the infinite in the blue rectangle of an unbroken sky.

Paz returns as an ambassador to India when he would travel around the country and write East Slope, a collection of poems on Indian themes. He would also talk about his experiments in collaborative poetry with Agyey and Shrikant Verma on Friendship. He gave Lecture on India upon Rajiv Gandhi’s behest and eight years later he would revisit the paper to write In Light of India although he makes no claim of anything in particular. And yet the book is a treasure for its insights and tenacity to seek answers in an unfinished quest.

Rama and Allah

Paz is incisive when he speaks about the coexistence of the two religions that are strikingly at extremes as one being the richest and most varied form of polytheism and other, the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism. He observes how the two communities retained their identities without any fusion and that the Muslim invasion happened in India long after the decline of Islamic civilization. He further observes that Sufi mysticism triggered a literary tradition in northern India. Similarly there was a Bhakti movement which sought to imbibe some of the radical patterns from Sufism and anti-orthodox Hindus.

Kabir is the son of Allah and Rama. He is my Guru, he is my pir…Tagore translated Kabir’s poems because in Kabir’s Unitarian vision he had seen a failed promise of what India could have become.

Paz doesn’t miss out on the contributions of Akbar and Dara Shikoh, especially to think that Darah Shikoh’s translation of Upanishads into Persian eventually ended up in Schopenhauer’s desk which in turn sparked the evolved minds of Nietzsche and Emerson! However the period of enlightenment was followed by dark years of Aurangzeb who single-handedly was responsible for the fault lines between Hindus and Muslims which had repercussions for ages and still echoing. Paz had noticed that the East India Company had never interfered with the social fabric or religious identities of Indians, they in fact exploited the conditions to their advantage. However the notion of nationhood was an idea given to the Indians by their former rulers.

Another aspect of the book is Paz’s interesting take on Caste system in India. This much derided Indian artefact and often times confused with racism is seen in a different light. Paz uses it to understand the social fabric of Hindu community in tune with their philosophy based on Karma. He acknowledges the critics of caste system in India and the dogma of untouchablity, but he warns the gentle souls out there who are horror-stricken by the word caste to not to miss the ancient hypotheses of cosmic order and how time is an illusion (maya) that eventually delivers those suffering in the cycles of birth and death.

Modern Indian History

Paz pays attention to all the regular names from the recent history of India: Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Subhash Bose, Gandhi, Nehru, V.K.Krishna Menon, M.N. Roy. Of these V.K.Krishna Menon and M.N.Roy need special mention. V.K. Krishna Menon, according to Paz was a malignant influence on Nehru who ultimately proved to be a fatal union for Nehru.

Menon was an arrogant and intelligent man, but, as so often happens with the proud, he was not the master of his own ideas: he was possessed by them. Nehru was never able to recuperate from the disaster of his foreign policy.

Reading Paz’s chronological account of M.N. Roy’s many political volte-face especially with the benefit of hindsight that we have when seen from this far in time, I couldn’t but be spellbound by Paz’s understanding of political history and ability to recognize probably the only genuine political mind to have emerged from India ever to make any impact on International political history.
M.N. Roy, an extreme nationalist inspired by Marx, was pursued closely by the British Intelligence, traveled to Chicago and later during First World War sought asylum in Mexica where he was instrumental in founding the communist party. Impressed by Roy’s activities and skill, Lenin invited him to participate in the third International and made him its agent in Central Asia and China. He broke up with Comintern and Marxism itself. He returned to India and fought for Indeopendence, spent years in Jail, however during Second World War supported allied force having realized the threat Nazism posed rather than being a cohort of Gandhi or Subhash Bose. After the war, convinced that the totalitarian system founded by Lenin and Bolsheviks was a disaster, he invented Radical humanism as a revolutionary response to the crisis of socialism.

M.N. Roy’s philosophy may have been inadequate, yet Paz’s brilliant sketch of his political genius in a few strokes might not be found in Kosambi’s tomes.

The project of nationhood

You can also find that Paz is aware of the emergence of right wing Hindu nationalist party B.J.P and the re-ignition of Hindu-Muslim divide. Although Paz acknowledges the inherent secular and moderate nature of Hindus, he observes how the radicalization of Hidnus started with Tilak and later consolidated by Savarkar which resulted in the bye-product of neo-Hinduism (Hinduthva) that envisions a monolithic concept of Hinduism united territorially and devoid of caste barriers hitherto unknown to the history-less Hindu culture. Drawing from his own history of Mexican nationalism, Paz has words of caution for the nationalists for their penchant for straight jacketing the identity of the acceptable and the abominable:

All this would be funny were it not frightening. Nationalism is not a jovial god: it is Moloch drunk with blood…In India many nationalisms live together and they are all fighting with one another. One of them, Hindu nationalism, wants to dominate the others and subject them to its law – like an aurengazeb in reverse. Another, in Kashmir wants the state to unite with a hostile nation, Pakistan – thus ignoring the lesson of Bangladesh.

Citing Shabano case to describe the weakness of secular politics when when Rajiv Gandhi overturned court order to defy constitution and earlier when Indira Gandhi showed how excessive polarization of power at the center could corrupt, Paz believes that the quest for Indian political and national identity should still be that of secularism and democracy with a constant vigil against disruptive tendencies and political expediency. Having seen the disasters of socialists’ totalitarian regimes in South America and the fate of nations built on military triumphs, Paz could not have suggested otherwise.

Contraptions of Time

Paz delves into the medieval and Vedic literature at length to point out the extent of erotic art, its strict adherence to structure (meter) and the absence of the notions of sin unlike their western equivalents. He ponders on the four branches of Vedic thoughts and attempts to find parallels in western thoughts and traditions. For e.g Genesis and the Rig Vedic postulation on the origin of the world and of humanity, or like the stanza from Atharva Veda which said: “Time Created the Lord of Creatures, Parajapati.” Further from Atharva Veda: “Desire (Kama) was the first to be born. Desire arose in the beginning which was the first seed of thought.” Sex is regarded as a vital force in Indian thought which looks at Life as energy which possessed the power to regenerate (a major school of ritual oriented vision of life – Tantric philosophy). However the enlightened man understands that while pleasure is a goal, is finite and it does not save us from death or free us from future incarnations. He seeks the path of abstinence and solitary meditation. Chastity gives strength for the great battle: breaking the chain of rebirths.

Paz expounds the teachings of Bhagavat Gita and Buddha in order to explain the two differing yet eventually unifying concepts on purpose of Life and living. However I was looking forward to the last segment of the chapter patently titled: Contraptions of time where he famously stated (from Nobel lecture): Every Civilization is a vision of time. Consequently the seeming staticity of Indian life is explained by the concept of time where it rejects the linear reality as Maya and the real reality is Brahman (Absolute Being) and at its depth, Atman (Self). Thus man is simultaneously impermanent as cosmos and unreal as an apparition. Paz looks at this as a metaphysical and social negation of time. According to him the first prevented the birth of literary, scientific and philosophical genre we call history, while the second gave birth to the institution of castes, immobilized society. He extends this theory to reason why the Hindu societies have viewed the European invasions as mere dissonances in the larger scheme of cyclical passage of time. However this century old equilibrium has been disturbed with the advent of modernity among the elites and now the ever pervasive middleclass in India.

Paz ends his book with his quest of answers for the questions India posed to him, midway with a scathing attack on the capitalist’s model of development and the now forgotten solution put forward by Gandhi. Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj envisioned a billion small villages of farmers and artisans armed with non-violence and Dharma as the contract between civilizations. But population explosion had long thwarted the dream. Every village became a pit of misery and despair. Paz is now seeking a new politics and suggests that the reformation of our civilization must begin with a reflection on time.

I would have never known how personal India been for Paz and how she inspired the finest thinker and writer of our time to tell us what we, the people of India clearly and seemed to me, irrevocably lost!