Commentary - Remembering the Indian poet Nissim Ezekial

Salil Tripathi remembers Nissim Ezekiel, the gentle Indian poet whose pioneering work in English ins

To fully appreciate the achievements of Nissim Ezekiel, the Indian poet who died last month aged 80 in Bombay, we should not remember the honours and awards he received in the 1980s, but the lonely environment in which he started writing in the early 1950s.

The mood in India at that time was largely anti-colonial; some politicians even wanted to abolish English, the language in which Ezekiel wrote. A Jew in cosmopolitan Bombay, in an India prone to sectarian violence, Ezekiel could not have been more of an outsider. He was the Reader in American Literature at the university, ran a theatre group, wrote advertising copy and art criticism, and also edited the PEN journal. But he also found the time to write and to meet aspiring poets. Dom Moraes, who met him when he was still a schoolboy in the early 1950s, recalls: "He gave young poets the feeling that they were not alone."

Generations of poets, like Moraes, and later Ranjit Hoskote, Jerry Pinto, Menka Shivdasani, Raj Rao, and Jeet Thayil, found Ezekiel to be extremely approachable, happy to read and comment on their work. Moraes remembers him as thin and pale, "with spectacles and long, delicate hands. He had a warm nature that he tried hard to suppress." Pinto recalls showing him his poetry, and Ezekiel pointing out that Pinto had used commas in lines 2, 3, and 7, but not after 1, 5, and 8. Why, he asked.

"I hadn't thought about it", Pinto replied.

"Think about them, then," he said.

Ezekiel was a reflective man who did not rush into making an opinion. This unwillingness to offend may have come from his acute sense that in India everyone had to get along. When India banned Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, Ezekiel was running the PEN All-India Centre and everyone expected him to stand up for free expression, but he did not. He argued that an intellectual should not upset the community in which he works. A quiet man, not prone to extremes, Ezekiel preferred to bow and bend. He would not bend to the state, but rather to those who claimed to speak for the aggrieved.

But in 1964 he took a strong line on V S Naipaul's An Area of Darkness, a sweeping indictment of India which was full of generalisations that were at times infuriating and at others uncannily accurate. Naipaul discovered a sclerotic India where nothing worked. "Rubbish, Mr Naipaul," Ezekiel wrote in a spirited essay, "Naipaul's India and Mine", which was resurrected by the poet Adil Jussawalla, who edited Penguin's celebrated 1978 anthology, New Writing from India.

Ezekiel chose to remain in India, although part of his family migrated to Israel. He felt close to its soil and its contradictions. Of India's searing landscape, he wrote once:

 

I have become a part of it

To be observed by foreigners.

I have made my commitments now.

This is one: to stay where I am,

As others choose to give themselves

In some remote place.

My backward place is where I am.

He had earned the right to laugh at India, and criticise its irrationality. I remember him in his room on the ground floor of the Theosophy Hall, surrounded by books, poets and readers, ordering tea and biscuits, listening to poems, planning a public reading; or reading his own poems, in his soft voice, often mocking Indian English, as in his amusing "Very Indian Poems in Indian English". What he did to the language through those poems in the 1960s (as Shobha De was to do with her journalism in the late 1970s) anticipated Rushdie's pyrotechnics in Midnight's Children.

There is some truth in Moraes's description of Ezekiel's poetry as unambitious in its scope and technique but, as he continues: "His tight rhymed quatrains often worked very well and displayed a wry, dryly mischievous sense of humour and an eye that was observant and sympathetic at once."

Nissim Ezekiel gave English poetry space in the crowded Indian literary landscape. A poet writing about urban alienation, he articulated the anxiety of so many educated, middle-class Indians. His pioneering efforts created the room in which later generations of poets were to thrive. Today, that room is busy, like a Bombay cocktail party. Ezekiel was never at home in crowds; he preferred to eat alone in Irani and south Indian restaurants, in a fast-vanishing Bombay that has now even forgotten its name.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Those WMDs - The blame game