In Light Of India, by Octavio Paz, translated by Eliot Weinberger
This is now the third book by the author I have read, and not coincidentally the third that was translated by the same gentleman. In reading this book about a place I have not (yet) been, I am struck by how much this particular endeavor is a very Nathanish sort of book. Admittedly, there are many Nathanish sorts of books, but this particular book is an example of the sort of travel writings I engage in as an observant visitor of other countries and someone who is generally interested in the sort of people and situations I see around me. Even more specifically, this book is made up of the sorts of essays that serve as general and overarching comparisons between one’s home country (in the case of the author, Mexico), the country that one is staying (in the author’s case as an ambassador to India from Mexico) as well as countries that the author happens to be familiar with from other travels (like European countries and the United States). Thus this book has the point of view of an observant outsider of dubious political intelligence who writes both about his own life as well as about how India sheds light on the author’s own experiences and background.
This particular book is about two hundred pages long and is divided into five parts and numerous smaller chapters, each of which is a semi-independent essay or treatise. The author begins with the antipodes of coming and going to India, as he describes it (I), discussing first his time in Bombay as an attache to the consulate there (1), his trip to Dehli soon afterward (2), and his return more than a decade later to Dehli as Mexico’s ambassador to India (3). After that the author discusses the issue of religions, castes, and languages within India (II), with a discussion first of the relationship between Rama and Allah (4), then a discussion of India’s characteristic view of the cosmic matrix contrasted with Christian and Western models (5), and the Babel of languages that India is made up of that has made its unity a difficult phenomenon (6). After this the author looks at India’s project of nationhood (III), looking at its feasts and fasts (7), the singularity of Indian history when compared with other regions (8), Ghandi’s paradoxical role of center and extreme within Indian thought (9), and the issues of nationalism, secularism, and democracy that India struggles with (10). After this the author moves on to a celebration of Indian religion (IV) with a loook at the Aspara and the Yakshi (11), chastity and longevity (12), the critique of liberation (13), and the issue of time (14), before closing with a farewell (V) and some acknowledgements.
The author is, as is often the case, limited in his work by his perspective. In some ways the author’s perspective makes him a sympathetic viewer of India’s culture and place in the world, such as his fondness for the paradoxes of Buddhism and Hinduism as well as the way in which India’s native culture and religion have lacked the Reformation and Enlightenment that color European thinking. The author also cautions the negative effects of the Hindu nationalism that has become increasingly popular in India and which threatens India’s ability to be peaceful with its own large and complex minorities, many of whom rightfully find Hindu nationalism a terrifying phenomenon. At times, though, the author’s belief that statist (socialist) economies are necessary for poor countries to advance leaves the author unable to explain how it is that some countries are able to rise above others when it comes to providing prosperity and dignity to wide portions of the population, thus helping their governments and cultures achieve a degree of legitimacy among the general population.