The Indian subcontinent has been subject to interpretation for centuries. From the Greek explorer Megasthenes, who wrote an account of India under Chandragupta Maurya, to the American poet Allen Ginsberg, who came looking for the sacred India, the country and its culture have been under constant scrutiny from the West. This also includes those of Indian origin such as Trinidadian-British writer VS Naipaul, who authored a trilogy about the “damned people and the wretched country”, exposing their “detestable traits”.

Of the numerous accounts of India by “outsiders”, the contributions of Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who arrived in India as a “young barbarian poet” in 1951, are notable and significantly different. “Everything that I saw (in India) was the re-emergence of forgotten pictures of Mexico,” he wrote in his book In Light of India (1995). Perhaps it was the reason that his works lack the Oriental gaze. Paz wrote extensively on Indian history, politics and culture, but his poetry sought out the magic of Indian architecture.

An inward gaze

From 1962 to 1968, when he was posted as the Mexican ambassador to India, Paz travelled across the country, collecting stories and making observations. The Nobel laureate was deeply impressed by the religious diversity and was drawn to the juxtaposition of different cultures and religions, especially in New Delhi – a city whose architecture and history went on to become recurring themes in his poetry on India.

He found Delhi’s “aesthetic equivalent” in “novels, not in architecture” and to him, wandering the city was “like passing through the pages of Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, or Alexandre Dumas”. Paz’s gaze, wherever he went, was inwards. For him, all the experiences, including the splendour of Mughal architecture that attracted him, were revelatory and enlightening in one way or the other. Within the pages of In Light of India – which talks extensively about architecture in Delhi – he wrote that while “Hindu architecture is sculpted dance”, in Islamic architecture “nothing is sculptural – exactly the opposite of the Hindu”. He added: “India owes to Islam admirable works of architecture, painting, music and landscaping.”

He called Delhi architecture “an assemblage of images more than buildings”. For instance, Humayun’s Tomb was “serene”, it was “a poem made not of words but of trees, pools, avenues of sand and flowers”. In his collection of poetry, A Tale of Two Gardens (1997), he writes about the monument:

To the debate of wasps
the dialectic of monkeys
twitterings of statistics
it opposes
(high flame of rose
formed out of stone and air and birds
time in repose above the water)
silence’s architecture

— Translated by Eliot Weinberger

Interestingly, even though he was an outsider, Paz’s Delhi is as culturally rich and poignant as Charles Baudelaire’s Paris, James Joyce’s Dublin, and TS Eliot’s London. In his poem Balcony (A Tale of Two Gardens), reflecting on a night spent in Delhi, he wrote:

Two tall syllables
surrounded by insomnia and sand
I say them in a low voice
Nothing moves
the hour grows
stretching out

— Trasnslated by Eliot Weinberger

In Signs of Rotation, Paz wrote that society and poetry went hand in hand, that the two terms “seek to break apart, but cannot”. At the same time, he contradicted himself by stating that society could “never be realised as poetry” and that society “was never poetic”. However, the “unpoetic-ness” of society did not deter Paz from versifying what he observed in India. He roamed around the capital, absorbed the echoes of history around him, and even got married under a neem tree in the garden of the Mexican embassy.

Architecture of silence

In his poetic study, Paz not only examined the structures, but also life around them. He placed disparate images next to each other, recreating what he saw. In his poems, history and architecture are inseparable – light, silence and movement are omnipresent and add to atmospheric serenity, and the stone walls and marble floors of the “vagabond architectures” are bound to time. In The Tomb of Amir Khusru (A Tale of Two Gardens), he wrote:

Amir Khusru, parrot or mockingbird:
the two halves of each moment,
muddy sorrow, voice of light.
Syllables, wandering fires,
vagabond architectures:
every poem is time, and burns.

— Translated by Eliot Weinberger

For the Mexican poet, Delhi was “a picturesque fusion of classical European and Indian architectures”. As an observer, he not only meditated on what he saw and heard, but also deliberated on the silence offered by Delhi. He thought the Red Fort was “as powerful as a fort and as graceful as a palace” and the Qutub Minar “a prodigious stone tree” that was like “a huge rocket aimed at the stars”. At the Lodi Gardens, he witnessed the domes of mausoleums shooting birds into the sky. In the Lodi Garden (from A Tale of Two Gardens) captures the moment with striking elegance and beauty:

The black, pensive, dense
domes of the mausoleums
suddenly shot birds
into the unanimous blue

— Translated by Eliot Weinberger

Paz left India in 1968, but India continued to live on in the poet. His translator Eliot Weinberger wrote, “no other Western writer has been as submerged in India as Paz”, and “maybe not since Victor Segalan in China when the new century rolled over, has a Western artist been so master on, experienced in, and composed so widely about a social other”.

The time spent in the country was forever etched in his mind and its architectural magnificence left a deep impact on the works that followed his time here. India influenced Paz and he reciprocated by writing about the city he lived in for six years, immortalising himself in the history of Delhi though his poems, and – in the process – refuting Naipaul’s opinion that there was no room for outsiders in India.

Manan Kapoor is a writer with Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. This article is a part of Saha Sutra. Sahapedia offers encyclopaedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts – to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.