October 2021 \ News \ Book Review
Alphabets of Latin America by Abhay K

This slim but meaty collection of poems regales us both with elegant poetry and a splendid, panoramic introduction to many facets of the mestizo continent

By Jorge Heine

Much like Ambassador Abhay, Neruda was also a poet-diplomat, as was our other Literature Nobel Prize winner from Chile, Gabriela Mistral. Harold Nicolson, the noted British diplomat and author of one of the standard texts on statecraft, Diplomacy, published in 1939, but still used today, referred to diplomacy as a written art form. Not surprisingly, there is a whole slew of writer-diplomats around the world, including, of course, in India. But the number of poet-diplomats is a much smaller subgroup of this larger universe, a subgroup in which Chile is well represented. As some of you may know, after serving as ambassador in India, I served as ambassador of Chile in China. As it happens, both our first ambassador to China, Armando Uribe, and his cultural attaché, Gonzalo Rojas, were noted poets who went on to win Chile’s National Prize of Literature. I sometimes wonder whether they communicated in verse at staff meetings.

Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel Prize winner, is in that category as well. Both Paz and Neruda (who are on the cover of The Alphabets of Latin America) had a strong connection with India, and Paz’s book, In Light of India, is an extended meditation on Indian civilization. Neruda and Paz are in fact joined at the hip in the Indian imagination, so much so that a good friend of mine in Delhi once told me that he “recalled” the days in which both Paz and Neruda served as ambassadors to India. This, of course, never happened. Paz did serve as ambassador to India in the sixties, but Neruda never did—the closest he came to that was as consul of Chile in Colombo, as far back as the 1920s, though he visited four times, including a famously unhappy encounter with PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950 in Mumbai, which led to his poem, “India, 1950”. But both Neruda and Paz wrote about India in prose and in verse, expressing their love for and fascination with Mother India in different ways.

Ambassador Abhay steps into that distinguished tradition of poet-diplomats, conveying his sharp observations about Latin America—from Bahia to Belmopan. In a few lines he conveys so much about what makes the lands of magical realism tick—its geography, its cities, its literature, its politicians and even its drinks. I have been to most if not all the places he writes about— even to Belmopan, the newly-built capital of Belize, a country that has come a long way from when it was known as British Honduras, and Graham Greene called it “the armpit of the British Empire”. And I was struck by the accuracy of Abhay’s observations, his writer’s eye, and his knack for capturing the essence of a place in a few lines.

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