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Poet-ambassador from Mexico

Octavio Paz was no stranger to India. The Nobel Prize-winning poet was Mexico’s ambassador to India from 1962, till 1968, when he resigned from the diplomatic service to protest against his government’s violent suppression of student demonstrations at that time. India enters powerfully into some his best known writings, including The Monkey Grammarian, an erotic novel about his trip to Rajasthan, and a collection of poems called East Slope.

He was in touch with the Hungry Generation, a group of poets from Calcutta who wrote in a radical idiom. Several of them were arrested on charges of obscenity.

So it was not surprising that the city remembered Paz’s 10th death anniversary on March 28. A book was launched by the Indo-Hispanic Society and the embassy of Mexico at the Town Hall. The event was attended by Mexican author Enrique Serna and cultural attache Conrado Tostado.

The book is a translation of 50 of Paz’s poems. Titled Octavio Paz Panchashti Kobita (Octavio Paz 50 Poems), the collection brings together eight translators from the Indo-Hispanic Society. Says Aveek Majumder of the Comparative Literature Department of Jadavpur University and one of the two editors: “I don’t know Spanish. My job was to see how the Bengali translation is shaping up and whether it is coming across as poetry. Often the essence gets lost in the translation and Paz is difficult to translate”.

Dibyajyoti Mukhopadhay, the director of the Indo-Hispanic Society, is the other editor. He described the process as an “exciting venture”.

“The book was released in Delhi last November,” he said. The foreword is by Mexican writer Elsa Cross, who describes Paz’s stay in India as a Mexican ambassador as being the most fruitful years of his life.

Paz loved to do different things with form. Piedra De Sol (Sun Stone), written in 1957, is one of his popular works. The poem, modelled on the famous Aztec calendar stone, refers to the planet Venus, a symbol of sun and water in Aztec folklore; and the Goddess of love in Western mythology. It starts with the same lines with which it ends, only if the poet is talking about nature in the opening lines, it ends with references to love: “I travel your length/ like a river/ I travel your body/ like a forest.”

His admirers in India appreciate the fact that he saw the country in flesh and blood, through his strong, stark language and imagery, and not as the spiritual fluff or a stereotype that many famous foreign writers still see it as.

“It rained, the earth dressed and became naked, snakes left their holes, the moon was made of water, the sun was water, the sky took out its braids and its braids were unravelled rivers, the rivers swallowed villages, death and life were jumbled, dough of mud and sun, season of lust and plague…mother India, girl India, drenched in semen, sap, poisons, juices,” he wrote in A Tale of Two Gardens, Poems from India, 1952-1995. (Paz had first come to India in 1951 and was invited again by the Centre to deliver a lecture in 1985). If The Labyrinth of Solitude is the author’s hard and steady look at Mexico, In Light of India is his study of India.

Paz edited the magazines Plural and Vuelta. He won the Nobel in 1990 and also won the Neustadt Prize that hails important contributions in the world of literature.

Serna, the Mexican author present at the launch, summed up Paz’s importance saying: “He has left a vacuum that still remains”. Songs, recitation and a play wrapped up the evening.

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