cover image In Light of India

In Light of India

Octavio Paz, Paz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $28 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100222-1

Nobel laureate Paz was first posted to the Mexican embassy in New Delhi in 1951, returning in 1962 for six years as ambassador. Now, more than 30 years later, he has written four masterful essays that explore both his own feelings about India and the complex realities of that turbulent land. ""The Antipodes of Coming and Going"" gives a quintessential description of India's initial impact on the foreigner's senses. Walking the teeming streets, Paz sees ""skeletal cows with no owners, beggars, creaking carts drawn by enervated oxen, rivers of bicycles"" and catches ""gusts of stench, decomposing matter, whiffs of pure and fresh perfumes."" ""Religions, Castes, Languages"" highlights rifts in Indian society, particularly the conflict between Islam and Hinduism. ""A Project of Nationhood"" covers political difficulties India faces as a modern nation. Finally, ""The Full and the Empty"" delves into philosophical and artistic matters, from classical Sanskrit poetry to the Hindu worldview and conception of time. Paz speaks as a Westerner, but without danger of being accused of neo-imperialist or first-world bias. Memories of his childhood in Mexico and frequent comparisons of India to Latin America provide original and fresh counterpoints to well-known facts. Modest in his claims to authority, Paz calls his book ""the child not of knowledge, but of love"" and notes that it is not a book for experts. The experts, with all due respect, may disagree. (Mar.)