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IN LIGHT OF INDIA. By Octavio Paz . Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger . Harcourt Brace: 210 pp., $22

March 30, 1997|AGHA SHAHID ALI | Agha Shahid Ali is the author of several collections of poetry, including "The Country Without a Post Office" (Norton). He directs the MFA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst

By his own admission, Octavio Paz's "In Light of India" is "not a systematic study, but a more or less ordered gathering of the reflections, impressions, and objections that India provoked in [him]." The lacunae of this book "are numerous and they range from poetry, philosophy and history to architecture, sculpture and painting. The subject, due to its immensity and variety, rebels against synthesis. . . . These are merely glimpses of India: signs seen indistinctly, realities perceived between light and shadow." With a light touch, Paz offers us India, knowing that modern India could be illuminated "with another light, crueler but more real."

As a Third Worlder, Paz does not identify with what one might loosely call a monolithic First World attitude, as does E. M. Forster or even V. S. Naipaul, a writer of Indian extraction who identifies more with Great Britain than his native Trinidad, or for that matter, India. "To a certain extent," he writes, "I can understand what it means to be Indian because I am Mexican."

On his first trip to India, a brief stint in 1951 as an attache in the Mexican embassy, Paz arrived in Bombay by ship. He was 37 and his fascination was immediate: "I was a young barbarian poet. Youth, poetry and barbarism are not opposed to one another: In the gaze of a barbarian there is innocence; in that of a young man, an appetite for life; and in a poet's gaze, astonishment."

After a week, he took a train to Delhi. "It was impossible not to recall another long train ride [near the end of the Mexican Revolution], as desolate and with the same monotony that is one of the attributes of immensity, that as a child I took with my mother from Mexico City to San Antonio, Texas. . . . [We] were going to join my father, a political exile in the United States. . . . She was haunted by the hanged men she had seen on trips from Mexico City to Puebla, swaying from the telegraph poles along the way, their tongues dangling." Paz was 6 years old then, and he particularly recalls "an elongated shadow hanging from a pole. Remembering that incident as I watched the interminable plains of India, I thought of the massacres of Hindus and Muslims in 1947. Massacres along the railroad tracks, the same in India as in Mexico. From the beginning, everything that I saw inadvertently evoked forgotten images of Mexico."

Because he arrived in India four years after the partition--whereby the states of India and Pakistan were created--perhaps it is natural for Paz to see Indian history as one in which Hindus and Muslims at best coexisted. "The presence of the strictest and most extreme form of monotheism alongside the richest and most varied polytheism is, more than a historical paradox, a deep wound. . . . A history that unites them but also separates them. They have lived together, but their coexistence has been one of rivalry, full of suspicions, threats and silent resentments that frequently have turned into bloodshed." This is not entirely true. For example, in AD 712, when the "first forays of Muslim soldiers into India" took place in the province of Sind, the Arabs declared the Hindus a "people of the book," a status the Koran gives only to Jews and Christians. One could give countless examples of an active amity between Hindus and Muslims over the centuries.

Paz at times contradicts himself. He asserts that India's ancient religious, ethnic and cultural divisions had "disappeared under British power," but he also concludes that "participation in British culture, common to both [Hindus and Muslims], had separated rather than united" them. As a matter of fact, various divisions had not disappeared under British power; rather, the British had an active policy of creating divisions. If Hindus and Muslims see themselves as separate nations today, it is substantially the fault of the raj.

He also contradicts himself on the contributions of Islam to Indian culture. While he admits that "India owes to Islam admirable works of architecture, painting, music and landscaping, not to mention its great historical achievements, like the creation of the Mogul Empire"--in many of which immense and subtle fusions between Hinduism and Islam took place--he is wrong to claim that India owes "not a single new or original thought" to Islam. The new ideas Islam brought to India were equality and fraternity, something Paz implicitly recognizes in the fact that "all the millions who adopted the new faith came from the lower castes." This was because, to quote Paz himself, Islam offered a chance "for one to free oneself from the chain of birth and rebirth (the terrible law of karma), a liberation that was not only religious but also social: The converted became a part of a fraternity of brothers."

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