A Life in Verse: Honouring Nissim Ezekiel on His Birth Anniversary
(This article was first published on 15 December 2017. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of poet Nissim Ezekiel’s birth anniversary.)
Many of us who went to CBSE or ICSE schools in India are familiar with these lines:
“I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.”
For the uninitiated, these are the words of iconic Indian postcolonial poet Nissim Ezekiel, in his famous English poem ‘Night of the Scorpion.’
Nissim’s Ezekiel’s son Elkana tells The Quint what made this poem all the more special for him:
I was in the tenth standard at St Mary’s School in Bombay, when my father was invited by my literature teacher to address my class and talk about his work. But Dad wasn’t carrying any of his works with him that day. So, a boy stood up and handed Dad our literature text book, from which he read out his poem ‘Night of the Scorpion.’ It was exhilarating for me, to have one of my favourite poems read out by the poet himself –who was my Dad.Elkana Ezekiel, Poet Nissim Ezekiel’s Son
If one examines the work of Nissim Ezekiel – who belonged to Bombay’s minority Bene Israel community – one can see pathos and melancholy as common themes. His friend and fellow poet Adil Jussawalla elaborates on this when he tells The Quint about Ezekiel’s quality of endurance and attitude towards suffering, through an anecdote.
Nissim was never combative when faced with adversity. Once, he told me he was in a state transport bus when a man sitting in front of him spat out of the window and some of the spittle came onto Nissim’s face. But Nissim didn’t bother wiping it off. It sounded absurd to me and I was speechless.Adil Jussawalla, Poet and Sahitya Akademi Awardee
Humility and Endurance
Jussawalla goes on to say that this quality of Nissim’s – to be able to endure such an apparent act of indignity with such grace and humility – was seen by some as masochistic almost, but “it was really humility in its extreme.”
Ezekiel could stoically withstand suffering – to the extent that he'd refuse to switch on the fan in summer, empathising with those who couldn’t afford such a luxury. However, the poet couldn’t bear to see animals and children suffer.
Jussawalla recalls that once, on his way to a college lecture, Nissim Ezekiel saw a man ill-treating a child at a railway station in Bombay. He yelled so much at the man that he lost his voice before his lecture began.
Ezekiel, the Educator
Ezekiel was brought up by parents who were educators. His father taught botany at Bombay’s Wilson College, while his mother Diana ran her own school ‘Vijay Vidhyalaya’ in Bombay’s Dongri area. So it was only natural for Nissim Ezekiel to take to teaching.
One of his former students and eminent Indian poet Manohar Shetty tells The Quint over the phone from Goa:
In the mid 1970s, Nissim Ezekiel taught me at Bombay University. He was a wonderful teacher who inspired and encouraged me to pursue my own writing. I am very grateful to Professor Ezekiel for also publishing some of my first poems in the magazine The Illustrated Weekly, of which he was the poetry editor.Manohar Shetty, Goa-based Poet
Kalpana Ezekiel Chogle, Nissim’s second daughter, recalls that her father “was so passionate about his craft that he came through with brutal honesty.”
Kalpana supports this with an anecdote, “Once, my father had to make a memorial speech at Bombay University. It was entitled ‘The Making of a Poem.’ The then Vice Chancellor introduced my father and said ‘Mr Nissim Ezekiel will now speak about The Writing of a Poem.’”
Kalpana adds, “Quite purposefully, my father rose and walked to the dais amid much applause, and said (looking straight at the VC) ‘It is the Making of a Poem and not the Writing of a Poem’”.
Ezekiel at Home
Nissim Ezekiel, long before his days as a poet and professor of English literature, did all sorts of unrelated jobs. Before his teaching days began in 1961, Nissim Ezekiel worked as a member of the Radical Democratic Party in the ‘40s, did a brief stint in advertising, managed the picture-frame manufacturing company Chemould, and even “worked his way back from England to India by working as a deck-scrubber and coal-carrier on a cargo ship” in 1952, as mentioned in The Sunday Guardian Live.
Elkana Ezekiel fondly recalls his father’s relationship with his mother. He tells The Quint over email, “Dad often showed his work-in-progress to Mum. At times, he would read out to her while she was cooking our dinner which she paused, to patiently listen, sometimes encouraging him, though not fully approving.”
“As kids we would ask him to read his new work to us and that was a pretty special experience,” says Elkana.
Ezekiel’s Memory Lives On
Eminent Indian writer and musician Jeet Thayil, in his book The Book of Chocolate Saints, writes extensively about Nissim Ezekiel and the other great poets of Bombay. Thayil tells The Quint over the phone:
The memory of Ezekiel, who battled with Alzheimer's disease in the last decade of his life, lives on through his children, his evergreen work and the writers he inspired, like Manohar Shetty and Jeet Thayil.
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