Years ago, taking an accidental detour in fiction and poetry from my commerce and MBA graduations, I came across a serious-toned, well-crafted and sometimes dense volume of Indian English poetry. In my attempts as a new poet then, I wanted to write English poetry of international standards and I found a home in Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry.
Reading him, I realised that tones of mischief, tongue-in-cheek humour, satire, irony, black comedy, even slapstick could very well be a part of poetry, if they were brought in with an unselfconscious candour that eased the reader into laughs, giving them both the ah and ha-ha moments.
Nissim Ezekiel was a man of many talents — not just a poet but also a playwright, editor, culture and art critic, and a foundational figure in postcolonial India’s literary history. His first collection, A Time to Change and Other Poems, was published 70 years ago, in 1952. Since then, his poetry has been discussed in national and international forums and made a part of NCERT textbooks. What fascinates me the most about his verse is its disarming simplicity, devoid of linguistic embellishments.
In the sun’s eye
Take for instance: “Prayer is transcendental speech./To transcend is to go beyond./Beyond is anywhere All/ Or nothingness” (‘Prayer’). Later in the same poem, he says, “…Is a prayer within the reach/ Of evil tongues. Indifference/ Alone is unredeemable”.
When I tried my hand at writing fiction, Ezekiel’s Bombay poems intrigued me. His description of the city is so pluralistic that Bombay could be a person: “Always, in the sun’s eye,/ Here among the beggars,/ Hawkers, pavement sleepers,/ Hutment dwellers, slums,/ Dead souls of men and gods,/ Burnt-out mothers, frightened/ Virgins, wasted child/ and tortured animal,/ All in noisy silence/ Suffering the place and time,/ I ride my elephant of thought,/ A Cézanne slung around my neck.” Or “Perhaps it is not the mangoes/ that my eyes and tongue long for, but Bombay as the fruit/ on which I’ve lived,/ winning and losing/ my little life” (From ‘Mangoes’ in Edinburgh-Interlude).
Ezekiel’s ensemble cast in the poem, ‘In India’, includes “Roman Catholic Goan boys”, “whitewashed Anglo-Indian boys” and “musclebound Islamic boys” who, though earnest in their prayers, copy, bully and steal in pairs while “[bragging] about their love affairs” and “[confessing] their solitary joys”. “The Anglo-Indian gentlemen/ [drink] whiskey in some Jewish den/ With Muslims slowly creeping in” and “The wives of India sit apart./ They do not drink,/ they do not talk,/ of course, they do not kiss.”
Ezekiel seems almost like the Mario Miranda of words but from a Bombay-Jewish cosmopolitan milieu, with a keen gaze and a flâneur’s sensibility, which faithfully records the city’s quirks. The poems in The Unfinished Man speak of the inner struggle of city-dwellers caught between the push and pull of escape and routine. “The hills are always far away./ He knows the broken roads, and moves/ In circles tracked within his head./ Before he wakes and has his say,/ The river which he claims he loves/ Is dry, and all the winds lie dead.”
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of A Time to Change and Other Poems, curators Basudhara Roy and Joydeep Sarangi, of the virtual poetry platform, The Hearth Within, organised an online poetry and anecdotes session on February 26. Says Roy, “The idea was to both celebrate Ezekiel and re-situate his work in the contemporary Indian and global scenario. Throwing light on Ezekiel’s satire, humour, translatability, his inimitable linguistic experimentations with Indian English, his idea of poetry as arrival, and his generous mentorship of all the younger writers of his time, the session captured the best of Ezekiel as poet, mentor, father and, above all, a committed countryman.”
Ezekiel’s Canada-based daughter, Kavita Ezekiel-Mendonca, a poet and translator herself, participated. I read Ezekiel’s ‘Jewish Wedding in Bombay’ and ‘Philosophy’, and led on by his verve, wrote a poem, ‘Litter of Applicasun To Eschool Principl’, that was published in Café Dissensus magazine.
Ezekiel once said, “Poetry is an art of language, philosophy is an art of thought.” Modernism came to Indian English poetry in the 1940s with Ezekiel’s quirky yet profound verse. Unfortunately, many of his books are out of print now. I hope a complete collection of his poems is commissioned soon. It is high time.
The writer is the author of four books of poetry and the story collection, Bombay Hangovers.