When I was in Mumbai in the 70-80s I had haunted the Irani joint often with friends in the evenings; I had dabbled in poetry too (quite a sizeable number by then) but never chanced to see a greying man mulling over his long sojourn in the city and his journey with poetry. I had heard of course of him when Indian English poetry had grown considerably though the books of poets could not even be seen on roadside book shops. I knew also he had a cubicle in Bombay University, met poets and read poetry, and generally been dismissive of whatever he read. If I had known he was what he was I would have opened a chat with him even if he was not that receptive to it. He was Nissim Ezekiel.
One of my friends had an experience which he would rather put in the attic of his memory. He showed his poem to Nissim and had it returned to him instantly with a dismissive “It is not a poem” remark. In retrospect I feel relieved that I did not bombard him with one. Nissim was not given to technical perfection or abiding by the rules of convention; he was a bird who flew with unlocking of emotion and contemplation at one go in free verse. Be it love, philosophy, contemplation of self and the city he was a quintessential Indian – troubled by his racial alienation, social nuances of a changing city and his reconciliation with what life gave him.
A Jew (of Bene-Israel community) who spoke fluent Marathi and translated in it, Nissim taught English literature for over a decade in Mithibai College, brought out his aptly titled “Time to change’ in 1952 and went on to pen eight collections of verse. In between he spent two years as Asst. Editor in Illustrated Weekly of India, dabbled with advertising and edited PEN for quite some time. By then he had developed the reputation of being the founder of modernist poetry though he had no distinctive influence on his equally illustrious contemporaries. Poets like Adil, Keki Daruwalla and many others had evolved on their own and on a par with him. But he had the undeniable credit of having been the first to take the language of poetry away from metric trappings into free flow. Even British and American poetry had shaken itself of such a grid by then. Still he was a craftsman.
Nissim expectedly had a troubled college stint because of his racial roots as the impact of Holocaust and World War II had rubbed off on the fellow students of his time. Most of the Jews had left and numerically they were too small in Bombay. His roots were strong in the city and he belonged to it emotionally. Howsoever put off as he was in the late 50s of slums where migrants settled he knew the city had its undying glamour and opportunities for those coming through the gateway. He felt like a native in a cosmopolitan, colourful city though it was being weakened from inside by growing parochialism. His “Time to change” brings out all these complexities in a tenor of simplicity. Take these lines in his “Background, casually”
I went to Roman Catholic School,
A mugging Jew among the wolves
They told me I had killed the Christ,
That year I won the scripture prize
A Muslim sportsman boxed my ears.
Unlike Naipaul who saw India as a distant past of his Nissim was very much a part of India and felt deeply Indian. He knew the country had its complexities inherited from history but tried to understand it with a lot of empathy and compassion. Somehow there is not an element of despair or disillusionment in his poetry though someone in his position could have made a song and dance about rootlessness. His stay in London only reinforced his belief that he belonged to India, especially Mumbai.
Ezekiel got his deserts – Sahitya Academy award and Padmashri but from the formative days took to poetry as a medium of expressing his faith in integrated humanism. Not religious in the accepted sense of the term he ridiculed superstitions and communal violence. His Night of the Scorpion would speak for it. There is a gentle rebuke of the superstitions still felt in rural areas about the scorpion bite and the rituals done in panic. His distaste typically was urban but he had a way of making the witty sarcasm stick. It does even now. These lines – the rustics burst in”like a swarm of flies” , the juvenile, babe-like belief that “every movement the scorpion made his poison moved in mother’s.blood,” “the holy man performing his rites to tame the poison” – illustrate the triumph of spurious belief over science or reality.
He had a feel for parody of middle class mannerisms or affected, ungrammatical English as in “Soap” and Professor. It would not make for poetry in the strict sense of the term but should be read as an exercise in humorous mockery. Neither would his Jewish Wedding in Bombay qualify to be thought of as poetry because it would read like a novelette but for some stunningly intrusive insights.
Even the most orthodox it was said ate beef because it
was cheaper, and some even risked their souls by
The Sabbath was for betting and swearing and drinking.
It is in poems such as ‘Island’, Poet, Bird, Philosopher or Minority Poem that he is at his best. In Poet, Bird, Philosopher he sees a kindred spirit uniting the three. Expressions such as you have to visit “deserted lanes and the source where the river flows in silence” groove around the fundamental idea that the secret of love and harmony is something the spirit feels but brain loses. And poet always “never spoke before his spirit moved.” For this you have to explore higher levels of attainment which only the poet, bird or philosopher can. If you have understood this then poems such as - Minority or Philosophy – become easier to grasp. And these lines will say more than one can by way of summarizing.
The landscape in its geological prime
Dissolves to show its quintessential slime.
A million stars are blotted out. I think
Of each historic passion as a blink
That happened to the sad eye of Time.
But residues of meaning still remain,
As darkest myths meander through the pain
Towards a final formula of light.
That, I suppose, sums up what Nissim is all about.