By Makarand Paranjape
Octavio Paz is dead. Do poets really die? No. Just as they don’t live conventionally, poets don’t die conventionally either. I realize this with renewed force when I read Paz again:
An enormous mass of liquid mercury, barely undulating; vague hills in the distance; flocks of birds; a pale sky and scraps of pink clouds… Little by little the white-and-blue architecture of the city sprouted up, a stream of smoke from a chimney, the ochre and green stains of a distant garden. An arch of stone appeared, planed 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!’
Paz, a minor functionary in the Mexican Embassy in Paris, is transferred to India in November 1951. Mexico is planning to open a mission in the newly independent nation. Paz is dismayed at the prospect of our strange country: ‘rituals, temples, cities whose names evoked strange tales, motley and multicolored crowds, women with feline grace and dark and shining eyes, saints, beggars….’ Armed with a copy of the Gita, young Paz sets out for India.
What awaits him in Bombay is ‘an unimagined reality':
…waves of heat; huge gray 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,… …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….
The catalogues of description run on. At nightfall, Paz returns to his hotel room, utterly spent. But a quick bath and he’s out again, roaming the streets, voracious, as only a poet can be. The excess of reality, he concludes, becomes 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….’
After the initial stay of a few months, Paz returns to India in 1962 as the Mexican ambassador. In the next six years Paz travels all over the subcontinent and writes several books of poetry and prose. In New Delhi he meets Marie-Jose, and marries her within a few months. ‘It was a second birth,’ says Paz later, ‘In love’s encounter, the two poles entwine into an enigmatic knot; embracing as couples, we embrace our destiny. I was searching for myself, and in that search I found my contradictory complement….’ In 1968 Paz resigns in protest over his government’s massacre of student demonstrators in Mexico City.
From his years in India come some of Paz‘s best known books: Alternating Current, with its essays on Buddhism and Hinduism; Conjunctions and Disjunctions, about eastern and western notions of the body; The Monkey Grammarian, an erotic novel about his trip to Rajasthan; and several important poems collected in East Slope.
In 1985, Paz is invited by the Indian government to deliver a lecture, which is later revised and published as In Light of India. The poems Paz wrote on India are collected in a volume called A Tale of Two Gardens: Poems from India 1952-1995.
As his translator Eliot Weinberger says: ‘Again and again, Paz‘s poems return to two gardens: the one from his childhood in Mexico and the one he shared with Marie-Jose in India. Like everything in his work, they are opposites, complements, mirrors facing each other with the poet, mid-ocean, adrift, in passage in-between.’
After his passing, Indians have remembered Paz with love and devotion. Indeed, Paz loved to make friends—he had many in India, poets, artists and intellectuals. In him, there was none of the reserve that comes from economic, cultural, political, or social barriers.
But what was Paz‘s contribution to the West’s understanding of India or to our own understanding of ourselves? The question is, perhaps, unfair, as Paz was no philosopher, historian, or political scientist. In Light of India contains lot of information and analyses, but there are few flashes of insight. Paz tends to rely more on published sources and available interpretations. Every now and then there is even the false note, the hasty generalization, the sweeping dismissal. Clearly, Paz is offering us little about ourselves that we do not already know.
If so, then how do we account for this Paz-mania? Can it be attributed to the inferiority complex of our intellectual elite, as one commentator put it? Or is Paz‘s engagement with India unique and unprecedented, as his admirers claim? I think the truth is somewhere in-between. India did something wonderful to his poetry. It brought about an inner flowering. His thought and idiom ripened. He began to understand himself and his own traditions better. India heightened his sense of self and all the values he cherished. His concerns, unlike the spiritual transcendence that India offered, were sensual and this-worldly. India made the joys of the world more real to Paz and rendered its sorrows more illusory.
What, in return, did Paz do for India? First of all, he perceived it afresh, not intellectually, but sensually—as a poet. The India of flesh and blood, of colors and smells, sights and sounds, was always more real to Paz than the idea of India. Paz‘s India was an India of kama (lust) and artha (wealth) in which dharma (moral duty) and moksha (nirvana) only provided a praxis and a gnosis. Even the great intellectual debates of our civilization were visceral and sensuous to Paz, never a means for transcendence.
However, with his impassioned love for life and his intense commitment to human values, Paz seems to make our earth a more livable place. Paz is not a yogi (hermit) or a jnani (the wise) or a bhakta (devotee), he is a lover, a poet, a passionate pilgrim at the shrine of life.
Paz is dead. And yet he lives on through his words. Each of which explodes in my head. The words are like liquid wine. They burn me as I drink them in:
It rained, the earth dressed and became naked, snakes left their holes, the moon was made of water, the sun was water, the sky took out its braids and its braids were unraveled rivers, the rivers swallowed villages, death and life were jumbled, dough of mud and sun, season of lust and plague, season of lightning on a sandalwood tree, mutilated genital stars rotting, reviving in your womb, mother India, girl India, drenched in semen, sap, poisons, juices.
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