File spoon-archives/postcolonial.archive/postcolonial_2004/postcolonial.0402, message 30

Subject: Nissim Ezekiel
Date: Mon, 16 Feb 2004 08:22:32 +0000

Many of you would have probably read about the passing of Nissim Ezekiel -- 
I wrote the following piece, which appeared in the New Statesman -- thought 
it might interest many on this list.


Commentary - Remembering the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel
Salil Tripathi
Monday 9th February 2004

Salil Tripathi remembers Nissim Ezekiel, the gentle Indian poet whose 
pioneering work in English inspired later generations of writers

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 1974 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 

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

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