The Mexican poet and Nobel laureate, who was born on this day, March 31, in 1914, spent six years in Delhi that deeply impacted him and his work

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.

Octavio Paz with Jawaharlal Nehru
Octavio Paz with Jawaharlal Nehru © Embassy of Mexico in 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