Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), poet, playwright and critic, is considered one of the foremost Indian writers in English of his time. Belonging to the Jewish community of Bene Israelis, Nissim, after a brief stint in teaching and politics, sailed to London in 1948 to study Philosophy at Bitbeck College. After three-and-a-half years of stay, he worked his way back home as a deck scrubber aboard a cargo ship. In 1953 he joined the Illustrated Weekly of India and then the literary monthly Imprint, followed by stints as a broadcaster on arts and literature for All India Radio, an art critic for Times of India, and a teacher at Mithibai College, Mumbai.
Throughout his career he continued to publish as a poet. He wrote on a variety of themes: people he had met, poverty, domestic servants, a railway clerk, the crow, Irani restaurant, his own dilemmas and sense of failure. He also published some plays and has also translated poetry from Marathi into English. He was the first poet to break with the past and forge a new identity for Indian poetry in English as a mentor to young poets like Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawala and Gieve Patel. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1983 and the Padmashri in 1988. Afflicted with the Alzheimer's disease for the last seven years of his life, Nissim passed away in 2004.
Shakuntala Bharvani, has an MA in English from Calcutta University and a Ph.D from Bombay University she also studied at Oxford and was a Visiting Fulbright Teacher. She has taught at the Elphinstone College, Mumbai and at Government Law College, Mumbai. She is the author of The Law and Literature, Lost Directions and has also edited The Best Order in collaboration with Nissim Ezekiel.
Nissim Ezekiel has arguably been the most important figure in Indian poetry in English. His role, in terms of 'historical' significance the way he pulled an effete Indian poetry by the hair and dragged it into the modem era, is unquestioned. His role as a mentor, as one who nurtured, guided and encouraged younger poets, especially in Bombay, is acknowledged by all those who knew how much he cared for poetry as such, which also meant the poetry of others. The quality of his own verse, the landmark poems which almost signpost the Indian poetic landscape, from the sixties to the nineties, should also be undisputed. (He wrote some bad verse as well, especially in his later years, when he wrote too much). His incisive reviews, especially of Indian poetry, were something one always looked forward to. (When one is talking of Indian poetry here, one is obviously speaking of poetry written by Indians in English). Thus the Sahitya Akademi is happy to publish this monograph on Ezekiel by Prof. Shakuntala Bharvani, who had known Nissim Ezekiel for decades and worked with him.
The author reminds us of Ezekiel's role as a formidable writer of prose, as a playwright, and as an art critic. In fact he was probably the first art critic in India to display the painting and comment on it on TV. He was also of course a brilliant lecturer. Thus there was more to Ezekiel than just poetry.
Modernism may not be a very fashionable term today, but a glance at the pre-Ezekiel poetry in India would go to show how important his 'historic' intervention was. The two really talented poets, both from the nineteenth century, Henry Derozio (1809-1831) and Toru Dutt (1856-1877) died early. The ones who came later need to be judged dispassionately. Here is Sri Aurobindo in Book II, Canto XIV :
All there was soul or made of sheer soul-stuff;
A sky of soul covered a deep soul-ground.
All there was known by a spiritual sense;
Thought was not there but a knowledge near and one
Seized on all things by a moved indentity Or take Manmohan Ghose's "Song of Britannia" :
What man of Ind or Nile
That sees his fat fields smile,
But his lips burst a flower
To praise Britannia?
In another poem, "Call of Orpheus" by Manmohan Chose we have these lines at Euridice's grave : "Sang the despairing/High poet of Thrace/Mournfully staring/ Down on the grass/There were in poses/the laughter of roses/His heart did craze." After that we have daisies rhyming with 'golden mazes' and so on. Between empty phrases like 'soul-stuff' and 'soul-ground' and the pathetic fat fields smiling there is little to choose, though there is enough to smile at. The contribution of Ezekiel becomes all the more stark in comparison—ruthless analysis of one's own motives and passions, the reflection on inner turbulence in poetry, doubt and self doubt and the questioning of the scriptures, all this was new. The title poem "A Time to Change" starts with the lines
We who leave the house in April, Lord
How shall we return?
Debtors to the whore of love Corrupted by the things imagined
Through the winter nights, alone, The flesh defiled by dreams of flesh, Rehearsed desire dead in spring, How shall we return?
As the poem proceeds we are shown a life of loose untied ends, of 'amputated gestures', a world of 'small rain and sundry mists', where
The leap is never made
Never quite completed, redemption
Never fully won.
There is a change of registers, of eras here, a poetry of 'secret faults concealed no more.' And all he wants is
A bit of land
A woman too
Grapes or figs
Secret faults concealed no more.
In a poem "The Double Horror," also from the first book, A Time to Change (1951), he starts by saying :
I am corrupted by the world, continually
Reduced to something less than human by the crowd, Newspapers, cinemas, radio features, speeches Demanding peace by men with grim warlike faces, Posters selling health and happiness in bottles, Large returns for small investments.
After that comes the premeditated inward turning, and as I have shown elsewhere, the corruption becomes "mutually infective, between the individual and his environment" .
Sudesh Misra in his excellent book on Indian poetry, thinks the corrupter is the city, eventually to be corrupted by the individual. That is what makes it the double horror.
Which brings us to Ezekiel, the poet of the city, especially of Bombay. Take this last stanza from the poem "Urban" :
The city like a passion burns.
He dreams of morning walks, alone,
And floating on a wave of sand.
But still his mind its traffic turns
Away from beach and tree and stone
To kindred clamour close at hand.
This stanza is pretty ambivalent for earlier we have the lines
The hills are always far away.
He knows the broken roads,. and moves
In circles tracked within his head.
Item Code: NAQ530 Author: Shakuntala Bharvani Cover: PAPERBACK Edition: 2017 Publisher: Sahitya Akademi ISBN: 9788126025831 Language: English Size: 5.50 X 0.20 inch Pages: 157 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 8.5 Kg