Insights into A Land of Immense Diversity

Article excerpt

In Light of India

By Octavio Paz

Trans. by Eliot Weinberger Harcourt Brace & Co. 209 pp., $22 Widely considered to be Mexico's most distinguished poet and critic, Octavio Paz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. For more than six decades, Paz has explored important aesthetic, cultural, and political questions with exemplary intelligence and grace. Among his many interests has been the culture and civilization of India, where he was first sent in 1951 as an attache to the Mexican embassy and later returned to serve as his country's ambassador in the 1960s. His new book, "In Light of India," is an urbanely informal yet highly informative look at the history and culture of that ancient, multifarious land. Written with Paz's hallmark erudition and sophistication, it also displays his remarkable gift for making complicated things accessibly clear, without oversimplifying or cheapening them. Paz begins with his first impressions of Bombay on arriving there in 1951. A sense of the personal touch lingers throughout the book, as Paz recalls remarks made by Indian friends, evokes a visit to a famed landmark, or describes a meal with Indira Gandhi. But if Paz is personal, he is also admirably self-effacing. He is present in these pages not as a gaudy "personality," but as a questing mind. An immense and ancient land of many religions, languages, and peoples, India has long been beset by what Paz calls "centrifugal forces," making it difficult to create a unified national state. The most significant of these, Paz notes, is "the coexistence of Hinduism and Islam. The presence of the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism alongside the richest and most varied polytheism," he writes, "is, more than a historical paradox, a deep wound.... In one, the theology is rigid and simple, in the other, the variety of doctrines and sects induces a kind of vertigo. A minimum of rites among the Muslims; a proliferation of ceremonies among the Hindus. …