Nissim Ezekiel —The Good Native

Trivikrama Kumari Jamwal, Centre for New Literatures, Deparment of English, University of Jammu, India

A reluctant guest at a social get together popularly known as a "kitty party," I found myself slowly mesmerized by the proceedings. The kitty has little to do with kitties, cats and claws notwithstanding the notoriety of these sessions for gossip, and everything to do with contributing towards a savings fund. Nissim Ezekiel would have had a field day encapsulating my first kitty party in one of his witty poems!

Why Nissim Ezekiel? The more I read his work, the more I wonder at the need for defense and explanation that this poet found it necessary to furnish:

Since English was introduced as a medium of higher education in India, some Indians naturally took to writing verse in it, just as other Indians wrote political commentaries, philosophical essays, sociological surveys, economic studies, and so on? Historical situations create cultural consequences. (Lal 170) . . . To write poetry in English because one cannot write it in any other language is surely not a despicable decision. (Lal 170-171).

Born in December 1924 in a Marathi-speaking Bene-Israel Jewish family of Bombay, Nissim Ezekiel started writing in English around the time of India's independence from Britain. Ezekiel wrote through a period in Indian history marked by heightened nationalism, heady Nehruvian socialism, Nehru's daughter Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's infamous Emergency and increasing disenchantment with the system. In the world outside, this was a period marked by anti-War disillusionment and alienation with all the attendant social and political upheavals. The temptation to view Nissim Ezekiel's poetry as some sort of a cross between an unwillingness to let go of the Raj legacy and a quaint exotic supposedly native use of the language is hardly surprising.

A farewell speech for a colleague going abroad in "Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.":

You are all knowing, friends, what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa. I don't mean only external sweetness but internal sweetness. Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling even for no reason but simply because she is feeling.

In "Night of the Scorpion." the poet describes the night a scorpion stung his mother

The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the Name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.

. . .

They clicked their tongues.
With every movement the scorpion made
his poison moved in Mother's blood,
they said. May he sit still, they said.
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of evil
balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh
of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around on the floor
with my mother in the centre.
the peace of understanding on each face.

The victim writhes with pain through all this, even as her husband

. . . sceptic, rationalist,
trying every curse and blessing,
powder, mixture, herb, and hybrid.
He even poured a little paraffin
upon the bitten toes and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites
to tame the poison with incantation.
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.

Little wonder at the umbrage taken, or at the sniggers. Poems such as "Night of the Scorpion." "The Patriot." "Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S." and "The Professor" were seen as poking fun at Indian-ness — superstitions and gaucheness manifested in Indian-English using the present continuous tense and word to word translations of Hindi phrases.

When Ezekiel's patriot avers "I am standing for" peace in a "world fighting fighting" even as he assures his companion, "I'm the total teetotaller, completely total," you can visualize the poet furiously jotting down observations in a Bombay commuter train. The Wondering Minstrels quotes the poet:

It all started as a comment by a friend who said that you write in English no doubt and you write English well but you don't seem to even know or realise that thousands of Indians speak what can only be called Indian English, … So from that time in all my train journeys from Mithibai College back home, I began to take some interest in the way English was being spoken on the train. Every time I heard an obvious Indian English phrase like, "I'm not knowing only." I would take it down. When I had about a thousand of these, I thought now is the time to create a character.

Skepticism at charges of belittling or exoticizing takes root seeing that Ezekiel does not limit wit and humor to such characters and situations. Perhaps in keeping with his identity as "poet-rascal-clown" in "Background, Casually." he directs them at other subjects too, including himself. Such "professors" and "Miss Pushpas" continue to dot our landscape — their standards of excellence in terms of cars, managerial jobs and a reminder that retirement came in spite of no serious health problems; the insistence on speaking English as a sign of erudition even if Hindi-English translations sound weird such as the Professor's invitation

If you are coming again this side by chance,
Visit please my humble residence also.
I am living just on opposite house's backside.

(pichwade as "opposite house's backside"); the very nuances of local speech patterns and dialects that peculiarise an international language, something that happens in every corner of the globe. And there is something to be said for not taking yourself far too seriously.

Describing the Saturday meetings of the Poetry Circle in the musty old ground floor room of the Theosophical Society building in south Bombay, Arundhathi Subramaniam, poet, dance critic and freelance journalist, describes the "book-spattered, dust-spangled room" where poems have been "shared, enjoyed, anatomized." The room that was also "the long-standing headquarters of that grand old patriarch of Indian letters, Nissim Ezekiel." The last bit is a parenthetical reference in an article quite unrelated to the doyen's prowess, but it proves one thing. Nissim Ezekiel as a literary presence cannot be denied.

And why so? Because although he is "remembered primarily as a poet." Nissim Ezekiel is "A playwright of credentials, a critic of encyclopaedic range and an academician in his own rights," as Dr. Sanjit Mishra of Banaras Hindu University and English Lecturer at a Rajasthan college writes in The Poetic Art of Nissim Ezekiel? Is it because of the superlative honors accorded to him — India's highest civilian award, the Padma Shri in 1988 preceded by the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983? Or because through him Indian writing in English gained international acknowledgement with the publication of his first book of poems A Time to Change (1952) by Fortune Press, London, his poems such as "Night of the Scorpion" and "The Patriot" finding place in British schools and the special issue of the American periodical Journal of South Asian Literature devoting a special issue in 1976 to him? Is it because he became an intellectual ambassador of sorts as visiting professor at Leeds University in 1964 and Chicago in 1967 among a host of lecture tours and conferences? Or then because he fostered new talent — Dom Moraes, Gieve Patel and Adil Jussawalla to name just three — back home to carry on the baton? In a January 10 2004 report in the Bombay evening-er Mid Day, Jerry Pinto reminisces about

three generations of poets who loved him, hated him, felt pity for him, tried to ignore him, took their revenge in public, apologised in private.

Is it reasonable then to talk of Nissim Ezekiel merely in terms of his usage of "Indian-English"? Do all his poems project India and himself as a bundle of mixed up expressions? When Dr. M.S. Thirumalai writes in Language in India that Nissim Ezekiel will be remembered "for the clever use of Indian English as a means to explore the Indian mind and sensibility." he makes it a point to add "among so many other achievements and writings . . . Nissim's writing is an embodiment of the best of Indian civilization and tradition."

The picture of a hot and poor India populated by beggars, performing monkeys, crowd that emerges in a mix of poems may possibly be seen as mimicking a travelogue built on Western stereotype of the country. However, the harmonizing factor is the understanding and comment underlying all of this. "The Patriot" is funny but darkly so because it goes beyond the present continuous tense into political comment on border disputes, intra-national disharmony, forced sterilizations. "The Truth About the Floods." based on a 1967 Indian Express report, is again dark humor, a scathing comment on the lot of the common man struck by natural calamities and the unscrupulousness and inefficiency of the administration in which people have lost their faith. "Irani Restaurant Instructions." written with a twinkle in the eye, just has to be seen as a tribute to that long standing institution of eating out in Bombay, as intrinsic to the city as the famous dabbawallas, representatives of whom were invited to the wedding of H.R.H. Prince Charles and Lady Camilla Parker Bowles. "Entertainment" makes no bones about the tough life of the couple and the animals and the small-heartedness of a crowd, even as it has to be applauded as a sketch complete with the little details of the woman touching her hair, the crying baby and people melting away. "Night of the Scorpion" succeeds with a grin as visual-aural poetic art and balances the irrationality of scorpion sting cures with the irrationality of a mother's love, while "In India" takes a dig at the subterfuge of sly sexuality plus at "true British courtesy" that offers a pin to a lady for a ripped blouse after a discreet roll in the hay.

How does one further read Nissim Ezekiel? As a poet of love? Of religion? Of humanity? As the first, Ezekiel has written several poems on the theme. Unlike wood that burns to produce ash and smoke ("For her"),

Love breaks the incendiary laws,
Blazing in a high wind
But staying good. The more you love
The less you burn away . . .

We cannot love
Without the idea of love. The feast
Is spread by gods with friendly wings
Who lead us through the myth and maze.

He traverses the sublime and the lustful with ease, confessing to carnal instincts as in "In the Queue"

Insatiate the carnal sense
Behind its stiff sartorial fence.
Though manners play the gentleman, A passing bosom lifts the ban.

and is unabashed about physical intimacy (noteworthy given the social mores of the country and time he was of) and attraction making no bones about the naked Cuban dancer being the primary reason for being "At the Hotel." and freely discusses the highs and lows of marriage. Physical love leads to spiritual joy, love leading out of Godlessness to God's name even as the weight of bodies is belied by the freedom of the soaring spirit in "Two Nights of Love"

After a night of love I dreamt of love
Unconfined to threshing thighs and breasts
That bear the weight of me with spirit.
Light and free I wanted to be bound
Within a freedom fresh as God's name
Through all the centuries of Godlessness.

After a night of love I turned to love,
The threshing thighs, the singing breasts,
Exhausted by the act, desiring it again
Within a freedom old as earth
And fresh as God's name, through all
The centuries of darkened loveliness

As the second, Ezekiel influenced both by being an Indian Jew and by Hindu scriptures, has a very human religion, personal, confessional, practical with an emphasis on faith and truth. He uses varying tones to address God and vacillates between despair, doubt, bantering, acceptance and understanding. He admits in "Prayer"

. . . I have known Prayer
as nothingness, and prayer
As all but nothingness,
But prayer as All I have not known.

. . .

Now again I must declare
My faith in things unseen, unheard,
The inner music, undertone,
The silence of a daily friend,
The dignity of trust, the fervour
Of an erring choice, the hidden
Sacrifice, the wordless son.

. . .

Indifference
Alone is unredeemable.
The rest is faith, belief and truth
Pursued, at any rate, in prayer.
This is all I know of prayer.

"Poster Prayers" ask God to "kick me around" so he can learn, compare God to the Vice Chancellor of a University who has the power to change things without too many speeches, and true to the bond with the homeland expressed in other poems ask God to "confiscate" his passport so he can work where "I belong."

Nissim Ezekiel has definite views on the role of poetry, the poet and the process of creation, which may start as the irritation of a grain of sand in the eye ("Drawing Room") and may require the patience and industry of a "stubborn workman" who brings about the "miracle" of harvest from stone, of making sense of dreams using words ("A Time to Change"), or it may be a sudden sharp moment of inspiration and clarity like a fire in the wind ("A Word for the Wind"). What do you say for a wordsmith who admits to the inadequacy of words ("Poetry." "Minority Poem")? For a believer in contemplation and insight who while thinking of death and life's imperfection in "Sotto Voce" feels

But cannot think the thought out to the end, For that would be the end of thought.

The poet is seen variously as doubter, interpreter, creator, silent thinker, communicator, innovator and messiah. Interestingly, Ezekiel's views on love, religion and poetry are all connected with his ideas on the state of man, his striving to be a "finished man" ("First Theme and Variations"). "What Frightens Me…" is self examination and the fear of that honest introspection revealing human weakness, instability, the mask ("self-protective") and the truth behind the mask ("the self naked"). In "Penitence" he worries that

But I am still a sea
And hold within
The muffled tumult
Of a sin.

His poetry examines, observes and expresses the condition of mankind, taking it onto a universal plane.

Ezekiel's work is not isolated from world influences. Dr. Sanjit Mishra, who has studied the complete works of the poet, divides his poetic career chronologically into Romantic, Realist and Humanist phases. It is a convenient division indicative of predominant moods and expressions but inevitably not watertight. Dr. Mishra also traces the influence of Eliot, Yeats, Pound and Philip Larkin in the work of a poet credited with bringing modernism into Indian poetry. Ezekiel himself indicates European and American inspiration. "Nothingness." about the abyss of living and mortality, is existential. "The Crows" is a line by line response to Rimbaud's landscape of cold, death and raucousness in "Les Corbeaux". "For William Carlos Williams" is short, sweet admiration of the cadence, "flesh." meaning and flow of Carlos Williams' work with a particularly precise summation of how poetry works

I love it,
And then I let it go.

Apart from more contemporary allusions, there are echoes of Spenser's Epithalamion in the ecstasy of wedded joys combining passion and quieter love, where the rose is white not red in "Marriage Poem"; and of John Donne's relationship with God, love and poetry as well as Richard Lovelace's "To Lucasta"

I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
Lov'd I not Honour more
in "And God Revealed" and its play on love
Enlarge the world of love with love of worlds.

. . .

Must charge our earthly love with love of earth.
We were not made for love alone, my Love,

Poems such as "The Worm." "After Rain." "The Fisherman." "Sparrows." "Lawn" and "In the Country Cottage" not only exhibit a naturalist's keen eye for observation but also the Romantic's contemplation of nature with a finesse that eventually leads to a lesson for man — the "primeval root" ("Sparrows") of nesting and mating as the root of all other activity, the silent efficient energy of a lizard, how the fish comes to the fisherman-poet "at last" and slow patient growth of the grass teaching the "gentle art of leaving things alone" ("Lawn") with a rather obvious parallel

a silence in the depths
a stir of growth
an upward thrust a transformation —
botanic turmoil
in the heart of earth.
At last
a thin transparent green appears
and there you have the lawn.

There seems to be an almost Blake-an dichotomy of innocence and experience too in the progression of poems, where the image of "nakedness" recurs as does that of blood and bones, with the former implying a deep, unselfconscious core of innocence, simplicity and truth. "Nakedness" crystallizes this in addressing the need to strip literally and figuratively to eliminate suffocating alienation, to return robustness to white airless limbs:

Unclothed, thought seems shapeless too,
And white as limbs that know no air,
For now my poverty is here;
Harlotwise it heaves in pride, sick
In every bone, with faults concealed
And outward favours painted red.
But when my soul will you be bare,
And body naked, breathe no shame?

Even when talking of love, he seems to disapprove of disguising the honest naked passion of the night with decorum during the day.

Halting the discussion at this point will show the technical and thematic excellence of Ezekiel's poetry, but leave it open to charges of being derived, as tepid as the water at Laodicea and equally condemned to be thrust aside as the Christians of that church alluded to in "A Time to Change". The soul of Nissim Ezekiel's poetry — its chief attraction — is the fact that despite amazing leaps across lines, Nissim Ezekiel keeps returning home. And not just to poke fun at speech patterns. London is a part of his poetic experience but it is Bombay he is at home in as he states unequivocally in "Background, Casually"

I have made my commitments now.
This is one: to stay where I am,

. . .

My backward place is where I am,

The Modernist in him criticizes the urban landscape and contemporary life. The corruption and desensitization in that leads to "The Double Horror" the poet and the man finds himself in

Corrupted by the world I must infect the world
With my corruption.

The city as seen from the top of a hill (scaling a summit is another repeated image) climbed during "A Morning Walk" is "purgatorial." yet "His native place he could not shun". It is not a pretty "Island" but the firmness of the "good native" never wavers

I cannot leave the island,
I was born here and belong.

If he acknowledges the international, he also values its Indian counterparts. In "Jamini Roy" and "For Satish Gujral." he appreciates their contributions while commenting on innocence of a people (the Santal tribals) that can inspire and on the function of the imagination and love to hear what is unheard respectively. There is a poem on the Paradise Flycatcher for ornithologist Zafar Futehally; while a cheerful, bent old odd jobs man Dhanya ("The Truth About Dhanya"), domestic help "Ganga" and the streetwalker — a medley of purple, orange, green and yellow covering up the actual darkness of her complexion and life — of "On Bellasis Road" are some of the characters you meet in Ezekiel's poems, apart from an array of women observed and remarked upon.

Hence a comment like R. Parthasarthy's in Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, An important characteristic of Indian verse in English is that it is Indian in sensibility and content, and English in language. It is rooted in and stems from the Indian environment, and reflects its mores, often ironically is something you can grasp immediately. Nissim Ezekiel, from being an Indian-born poet writing in English has achieved a stature by creating a body of thought and writing combining the universal, global and home ground with an élan that justifies his own stand that, "Poetry translated into English from the modern Indian language does not constitute English poetry written by Indians," (Lal p .171)

It is sad, even ironic, that a man who evinced a razor-sharp mind all through his life had to be institutionalized for Alzheimer's in his later years. When he passed away on January 9, 2004, Jerry Pinto wrote in Mid Day the following day

Nissim Ezekiel died yesterday. He had just turned 80. I do not feel as if I have lost a friend, a colleague and a fellow-worker in the salt mines of the word. The onset of Alzheimer's meant that we, Mumbai, its poets, his friends and I lost him by degrees.

References

Ezekiel, Nissim. Collected Poems, 1952-1988. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Ezekiel, Nissim. All poems from Journal of South Asian Literature v. 11 V 11 (1976). Digital South Asia Library [University of Chicago]. Center for Research Libraries. 13 June 2002. 15 May 2005 and 31 July 2005.

Except

"Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S." quoted in "Queen's English — Ebonics, nonstandard vernacular or hybridized order of speech." Homi K. Bhabha. ArtForum March 1997. 24hour Scholar. 15 May 2005.

"The Patriot." "Nissim Ezekiel: the Jewish Poet of India." Discussions. JBooks.com. 2003. 15 May 2005.

"The Professor." The Wondering Minstrels. Comp. Abraham Thomas and Martin DeMello. [Rice University] 18 October 2000. 15 May 2005.

Joffe, Lawrence. "Nissim Ezekiel Gifted poet nurturing English-language verse in India." The Guardian, 9 March 2004. Guardian Unlimited. 13 May 2005.

Lal, P., ed. Modern Indian Poetry in English. Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1969.

Lovelace, Richard. "To Lucasta Going to the Wars." Representative Poetry Online. Ed. Ian Lancashire. University of Toronto Libraries. 2003. 10 May 2005.

Mishra, Sanjit Ph.D. The Poetic Art of Nissim Ezekiel. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. 2001.

Parthasarthy, R., ed. Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets. 1976. Poetry Splash! Rediff homepages. 10 May 2005.

Pinto, Jerry. Mid Day Multimedia Ltd. 2004. 10 January 2004. 13 May 2005.

Rimbaud, Arthur. "Les Corbeaux." Trans. John Kinsella. Boston Review. 10 May 2005.

Subramaniam, Arundhati. SAWNET The South Asian Women’s NETwork. Started November 2001. 5 May 2005.

The Wondering Minstrels. Comp. Abraham Thomas and Martin DeMello. 18 October 2000. 10 May 2005.

Thirumalai, M.S. Ph.D. Ed. Language in India. Vol 4: 2 February 2004. 10 May 2005. <>.


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Last modified 1 August 2005