'A human balance humanly acquired'
His was a name synonymous with the ideal of a literary culture in a city that does its best to deny such an ideal. RANJIT HOSKOTE remembers Nissim Ezekiel.
"SAMPLA," said the gravedigger, resting heavily on his shovel, motioning to us to approach the mound of freshly turned earth with handfuls of rose petals. "It's over." The terse comment summed up our mood as we threaded our way, last Sunday, between the gravestones of generations of Bene Israel at Bombay's Haines Road Jewish Cemetery, having joined his family in committing to the earth one of this micro-minority's most celebrated members: Nissim Ezekiel. Born in December 1924, Ezekiel essayed many roles with energy and grace: poet, editor, art critic, playwright, teacher, and literary organiser. Despite the fact that he had been incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease since August 1998 and confined to a nursing home, Ezekiel had continued to be present in conversation, his name synonymous with the ideal of a literary culture in a city that does its best to deny such an ideal. His physical passing brings us to the last page, though, to the balancing of accounts and the reluctant closing of the book.
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
Nissim Ezekiel ... essayed many roles.
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People called Ezekiel "the professor"; to me, he was always "the Rabbi", an only half-facetious title that amused him, for the teacher was blended in him with the sceptic who yet seeks wisdom, the wounded healer. Over the decades, he made himself generously available to aspiring writers: not only to his own immediate clan, the poets, but also to playwrights, fiction writers, memoirists, and that vast reserve army of amateurs who believe they have a book inside them, if only someone would take the trouble to fish it out. Another writer may well have guarded himself against such continuous leakage of energy; Ezekiel patiently played Bodhisattva to ever-expanding circles of literary enthusiasts. In the deeply moving "At 62", he wrote:
"I want my hands/ to learn how to heal/ myself and others,/ before I hear/ my last song."
Ezekiel's 20 years as a formal academician were only one phase in an astonishingly varied, even experimental life. He worked as manager of Chemould, the frame-making establishment that became one of Bombay's leading art galleries; held jobs in advertising, broadcasting and publishing. Admirably, while engaging with social and political crises as a public intellectual, Ezekiel navigated a consistent literary course, publishing eight volumes of poetry, beginning with A Time to Change (1952) and culminating in Collected Poems (1989). Besides, he wrote plays, many performed on the Bombay stage; a suite of songs for his nephew, the musician Nandu Bhende; a body of art criticism, much of it keenly perceptive and mounted from a politically astute position; and a substantial sequence of literary reviews. At various points in his life, he edited the periodicals Quest, Imprint, Poetry India and The Indian PEN Quarterly.
As a young man in the 1940s, Ezekiel had faced a choice between two mandates. One, the commandment to relish experience through the bohemian literary life: this took him to London, where he shared a basement flat with his friend, the theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi, attended Birkbeck College, and explored the buoyant, if also austerity-shadowed, post-World War II London scene. The other mandate, which never quite overshadowed the first, was that of the traditional householder's dharma: this prompted him, on his return to Bombay in the early 1950s, to submit to parental fiat, enter into an arranged marriage, settle down to raise two daughters and a son. Coming early into collision, these mandates led to domestic difficulties; the dramatic goings away, stormy returns, ceaseless self-doubt and anxiety as to existential purpose provided his poetry with its abiding themes. Through the 1960s, Ezekiel wrote from the centre of the embattled, vulnerable self: not the narcissistic self obsessed with narrow personal anxieties, but one that wove the intimacies of desire, temptation, guilt and quest into larger cultural disquietudes. Ezekiel's ruminative, sometimes almost sententious tenor, his dry wit and self-deflating irony have attracted much notice; few readers counterbalance these with the magnificently lyrical moments when the poet achieves a searing insight into human frailty, when his mastery over formal metre yields before a music of surprise.
During a conversation one morning in the late 1980s, Ezekiel showed me a sunbird working industriously in the tangled bougainvillaea outside the windows of his office at the PEN All-India Centre. He had just rescued its nest from the unsentimental gardener, retreating, none too graciously, shears still in hand. Bird life often supplied Ezekiel with images and models; he wrote, in that credal poem, "Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher":
"To force the pace and never to be still/ Is not the way of those who study birds/ Or women. The best poets wait for words./ The hunt is not an exercise of will/ But patient love relaxing on a hill...In this the poet finds his moral proved,/ Who never spoke before his spirit moved."
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The image that I will always carry of Ezekiel is that of a man in aquiline profile, hunched over a spot-lit desk, held in the narrow frame of a door. Immersed though he might be in writing, editing or answering correspondence, he always left his door ajar, a line of communication with the busy world of arrivals and departures, voices and sirens. That was how I first saw Ezekiel when taken to see him, as a boy barely out of school, by my father; the two had been near-contemporaries at Wilson College. Wilson in the 1940s was a hotbed of student activism, with the Gandhian nationalists and the militant Left equally vocal; Ezekiel, as an Indian Jew, found himself caught up by the nationalist tide, yet had to consider, unlike his Hindu and Muslim compatriots, the call of Zionism. Was he to write in the English acquired by his Victorian forebears, or revert to the Marathi of his Konkan ancestors; or instruct himself in the Hebrew being promoted by his western cousins? Soon enough, he dedicated himself, not to a distant homeland promised to returning exiles or a paradise beyond the ocean, but to the society he knew best. Some of his confreres moved to London or New York, or embraced a life of peripatetic internationalism; others devoted themselves to activism in villages where corruption and destitution reigned. Ezekiel, ever the votary of the golden mean, elected to remain in Bombay, addressing both the cosmopolitan and the local in this volatile crucible. In "Background, Casually", he concludes:
"I have made my commitments now./ This is one: to stay where I am,/ As others choose to give themselves/ In some remote and backward place./ My backward place is where I am."
Indeed, it was through his negotiations with the fundamental questions of language and belonging that Ezekiel became the first modernist in Indian poetry in English. Before his pioneering advent, this tradition had been limited to a derivative versification compounded from Wordsworth and Tennyson. In his later poetry, during the late 1970s and 1980s, Ezekiel played the wry, categorically non-omniscient observer, honing the poetic persona of the reasonable man attending to his time, place and fellow humans. Not for Ezekiel the impassioned defence of extreme positions, the melodramatic posturing of the Poet with a capital "p". And yet, much of his poetry was a sustained meditation on the act of poetry, its ability to testify to experience, but much more vitally, to act as a mode of knowledge. Such a meditation brought him up, inevitably, against the demands of passion. Through the 1960s, his poems staged a dialogue between intellect and instinct, slow wisdom and reckless appetite: in poem after poem, the sage with his eyes fixed on transcendence wrestled with the driven animal in the loins.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, too, Ezekiel conversed with yogis, godmen, palmists, painters and clerks, culling a diversity of experience as well as cultivating an ear for the tones of Indian English, rendering these into a suite of "Very Indian Poems"; often mistaken for snobbish satire, these poems bear sympathetic witness to social locations and predicaments distant from the Eng. Lit. curriculum. In his benchmark essay, "Naipaul's India and Mine" (1965) a riposte to the Trinidadian's shrill offering, An Area of Darkness Ezekiel aligned himself with the subaltern and the middle-class Indian, struggling to articulate their being in the face of multiple oppressions. "My quarrel is that Mr. Naipaul ... writes exclusively from the point of view of his own dilemma, his temperamental alienation from his mixed background, his choice, and his escape. That temperament is not universal, not even widely distributed, that choice is not open to all, the escape for most is not from the community but into it. To forget this is to be wholly subjective, wholly self-righteous, to think first and last of one's own expectations, one's extreme discomfort." In "A Poem of Dedication", Nissim Ezekiel laid out his own manifesto eloquently:
"I do not want the yogi's concentration,/ I do not want the perfect charity/ Of saints nor the tyrant's endless power./ I want a human balance humanly/ Acquired, fruitful in the common hour."
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