Nissim Ezekiel passed away on 9th January 2004, at the age of 79. As a poet, critic, editor, teacher, political commentator, he was a seminal influence on Indian Literature in English. This volume commemorates his achievements and testifies to half a century of his intellectual involvement in the literary arid cultural life of Bombay (as the city was known then), and to a lesser extent of India.
Nissim Ezekiel Remembered has a panoramic scope. It is designed for the general reader and for students of Indian writing in English. The book begins with a wonderfully lively set of personal memoirs. Ezekiel’s great achievement as a lyricist is represented by a small selection from Collected Poems and a large sample of uncollected verse. The selected plays, point to a more nuanced, specific, observationist vision.
The impressive selection of prose reproduced for the first time covers a wide range of views on art, literature, politics and light, laconic odds and ends of gossip. It is opinionated in the best sense of the word and anecdotal, presenting a point of view that can be audaciously disagreeable but generally incisive and considered. The book reviews and art criticism are his greatest contribution to the cultural life of his time. They encapsulate the acute critical judgement that marked Ezekiel’s style, and the critical tenets that he established continue to resonate.
The book concludes with an academic section which, it is hoped, will arouse the interest of a younger generation of students in Ezekiel and the India that he inhabited.
Havovi Ankesaria did he doctorate at Cambridge University on The Critical Responses to Dylan Thomas’s Poetry. She has contributed book reviews and articles to several newspapers and literary journals. She has been Guest-Editor for a special issue on Nissim Ezekiel for the Journal of Indian Writing in English (1986).
Santan Rodrigues has published two books of poetry: 1 Exist (1972), and This Far, a section in 3 Poets (1978). He was Founder-Editor of Kavi India, a poetry quarterly.
NISSIM EZEKIEL elevated the critical faculty to the level of the creative. His passionate engagement with literature and the arts was enhanced by the sharp elegance of his thought. He was, for his time, the public face of the literary and academic establishment in India. His — discussion of books and art were regularly featured on a very young Doordarshan and MI-India Radio in the 70s and the early 80s. Newspaper and periodical contributions about the demands of writing, the sacrifices required to pursue such a vocation were assiduously solicited by editors. And in his long tenure as a reviewer of books he introduced to readers the marvels of the imagination. A commemoration volume as a series of solemn eulogies would hardly be appropriate for a writers so deeply conscious of the imperatives and limitations of his craft. For Ezekiel to be critically creative and creatively critical formed the core of his intellectual framework.
This volume is therefore compiled in the spirit of a commemoration, but envisaged as a reader. It is as much a memoir as about how we choose to remember. It begins with a poem by Adil Jussawalla, a most unusual recollection, composed specially for this tribute and reflecting with remarkable subtlety the undercurrents of this book. Also included are personal reminiscences by friends and colleagues, selections of Ezekiel’s poetry, plays, a short story, essays, art and book reviews. The book concludes with academic/critical comment on his literary achievements. In the absence of a biographical essay crucial interviews are republished and a chronology of important dates provided. Inevitably personal memoir overlaps with criticism, for that was the nature of Ezekiel’s relationship—his generosity and courteousness complemented his efforts to advance the cause of literature and the arts. Dom Moraes reports in his autobiography that Ezekiel lent him books and tutored him on the importance of punctuation and this concern was not reserved for the favoured few. Writers, critics editors and students have been generously supported by him.
Ezekiel’s death was a cultural watershed for the literary community of Indians writing in English. In a 50-year association with institutions like The P.E.N. All-India Centre and journals like The Illustrated Weekly, Quest, Imprint, Freedom First, The Indian P.E.N., he had consolidated a set of parameters and critical standards that rose above the petty and the personal. His routine accommodated a variety of commitments—mornings at the P.E.N. office, afternoons at Bombay University; and after retirement 9 to 5 at the P.E.N., cups of tea with friends and associates, rounded off with a cultural event in the evening, and all this within walking distance of his P.E.N. office. It seemed as if this salubrious routine could never end. But of course it did, and with it his role as critic and editor and the lessons of objective assessment and judgement which he strove to inculcate in his own criticism and impart to his students.
Ezekiel was brought up in an age of great causes where all was to be sacrificed for the big idea. He aspired to make everything subservient to his need to be a poet. The writing of poetry was more than just ambition and vocation; it was a crusade, to do something for India. In his early work Ezekiel believed himself to be forging a new tradition, evolving a new idiom appropriate to the spirit of a free, secular, more self-reflective modern India. Routine was detrimental to the cause, or so he rationalized, and to inspiration, as were the demands of providing for a family, associating with the same friends and work colleagues. The LSD trips, the job-trotting and women were part of the messy business of nurturing the muse by new stimuli, new experience so as to make it more than the whimsy of the occasional moment, the flash in the frying pan. And part of this bohemian enterprise was the cold London basement room, and in later years, the forbidding murkiness of The Retreat. He was not entirely successful in converting this self- enforced isolation into the ivory tower that he might have liked it to be; he was fully aware that in order to survive as a writer one had to engage with the outside world. The noisy city was his inspiration, and some would say his undoing. It is not surprising that Ezekiel’s greatest contribution was to poetry and to journalism. The short lyric and the newspaper essay were admirably suited to his manner and lifestyle. Adhering to journalistic deadlines provided him with the stimulants for literary output, and by its regular appearance he avoided the remoteness of the pure literary achievement.
Details of Ezekiel’s publishing endeavours are well established—A Time to Change and other poems in 1952, Sixty Poems, 1953, The Third, 1959, The Unfinished Man, 1960, The Exact Name, 1965. Three Plays was published by Writers Workshop in 1969. He collaborated with Vrinda Nabar on a translation of Snake-Skin and other poems of Indira Sant from Marathi, continuing with sporadic translation throughout his career. Hymns in Darkness appeared in 1977 followed by Latter- Day Psalms, 1982. And as if this was not enough, there was the enormous contribution of book reviews, art reviews, comments on social and political events, views on civil liberties. Collected Poems was published by Oxford University Press in 1989, Macmillan published Don’t Call it Suicide in the same year and Selected Prose appeared in 1992. No reader on Nissim Ezekiel, even if twice as long as the present one, can accommodate the huge sweep of his work.
The selection of prose and poetry in this Reader is intended to complement Collected Poems and Selected Prose and exclude items from them but of course this principle was compromised from the outset. A reader aims to provide a selection of the finest prose and poetry, hence the inclusion of a few poems from the Collected Poems; Oxford University Press refused permission to publish more. Others might have chosen differently but we chose the early and not so familiar ones, leaving out the much anthologised pieces. ‘Night of the Scorpion’ was the exception. In his first poems Ezekiel sought for precision of diction and imagery. A strictly metered and rhymed verse points to the influence of Auden, and parallels the accomplishments of the Movement. Kersi Katrak and others identify Eliot and Pound, poets Ezekiel was also influenced by, wrote about and taught brilliantly. By the time the unpublished ‘Hyderabad Poems’ (1985), almost surreal in its imagery, and ‘Singapore Sequence’ (1989) were written he had moved to a less energetic mode of expression. Like its published counterpart Edinburgh Interlude’, both sequences are quiet observations in free verse. Also included in this volume is a series of ‘found poems’ (Ezekiel’s definition), which were cyclostyled for private distribution. The selection of poetry concludes with an untitled poem, possibly his last, published in Brown Critique and identified as having been discussed at a Poetry Circle, Bombay, Writing Session. It reinforces earlier concerns—a need to question certitudes, and the necessity for constant self-evaluation. It also demonstrates the state of his mind in 1996— niggling doubts about his achievement, an increasing lack of confidence. By 1996 it was obvious to him and to his friends that things were not as they had been.
Selecting the prose was an easier task but for the prevarications over the Naipaul review article—but more on that later. Ezekiel was a prolific writer of prose although he regarded his efforts as incidental to the poetry. His own estimation of its lack of worth may well have encouraged its neglect: ‘My critical articles and reviews must remain uncollected. I stand only by my poetry’.’ Selected Prose of course was published since that remark in 1979 but it is a slim volume, spans a mere twenty years—1965 to 1984, excludes the Art Criticism, and says nothing of Ezekiel’s interest in politics. I-Us writing on art includes short comments on exhibitions for The Times of India, ‘Art Notes of the Week’ for Mid-day and The Afternoon Dispatch and Courier. Our choice is a selection of longer essays on individual artists written for Thought and ‘Z’ magazine. Inevitably, without re-productions of the relevant paintings, the impact of these articles is somewhat diminished, but they nonetheless attain a visual eloquence through the power of linguistic detail.
His response to poetry and art was immediate, not weighed down by scholarship, as was his approach to politics. The Freedom First editorials are comments on contemporary national and international political events and reflect social and political interests without an orthodoxy. Editorials concerned with still ongoing issues have been chosen. History repeats itself in the United States control of ‘Afghanistan’, and ‘How to Destroy the Unity of India’ resonates in the continuing tension on India’s borders.
He wrote more than five hundred essays and book reviews. Comments on Indian writers and poets and the book reviews on Keki Daruwalla, A.K. Ramanujan, Adil Jussawalla and Dom Moraes are attempts to locate and assess his own relation to the traditions that were being evolved around him. Makarand Paranjape would have liked Ezekiel to have shown greater consideration for the poets who preceded him and who Paranjape feels were his inheritance, and Ezekiel did. 1-Ic dismissed Aurobindo Ghosh but had enormous respect for Tagore as the article on Gitanjali demonstrates. The ‘Introduction’ to the Rajaji Reader reflects a sensitivity to ways of thinking and orthodoxies alien to this own. ‘Poetry in the time of tempests’ written as late as 1997 reads almost like his epitaph. On his lucid days and there were many in 1997, he had moments of great clarity and brilliance, hence the inclusion of this final piece published in The Times of India.
The selection of prose has excluded articles published in Selected Prose, but for one exception—’Two Poets’, a review of Keki Daruwalla’s Apparitions in April and A.K. Ramanujan’s Relations first published in The Illustrated Weekly. The Ramanujan/Daruwalla review complements reviews on Adil Jussawalla’s Land’s End and Missing Person, Sitakant Mahapatra’s Quiet Violence, and Dom Moraes’s Serendip. Ezekiel has of course written elsewhere on A.K. Ramanujan and K.N. Daruwalla, but to substitute this iconic piece for a less inspired one simply to avoid repetition would have diminished the impact of this section.
At this point I would like to explain the omission of that much- quoted, frequently misquoted, over-analysed Naipaul review article. It was left out because it has been frequently re-published and large chunks of the article are also quoted in essays included in this volume. Of course it can be argued that a poem like ‘Night of the Scorpion’ is equally well known and The Ramanujan/Daruwalla review has also been republished. Naipaul, therefore, should have stayed. Its reputation however, is so monumental as to take attention away from all else. By excluding Naipaul, readers will perhaps engage with unfamiliar but equally incisive essays and note that Ezekiel was concerned with ideas other than notions of identify belonging and the perspective of the insider-outsider.
Apart from Kersi Katrak’s ‘Paterfamilias’, a review of Latter-Day Psalms, in The Times of India and Vrinda Nabar’s ‘Domesticity and Drama in Marriage Poem and Don’t Call it Suicide, the critical articles in this volume were specially commissioned. It is hoped that collectively they encompass the range of Ezekiel’s thought and interests. The situation begins with Keki Daruwalla’s analysis of A Time to Change and oilier poems; the book was historically important, a break through to a new and modern diction and idiom. Ezekiel’s sense of the absurd is crucial to defining the life around him. Geetha Gunapathy-Dore regards Ezekiel’s humour as therapeutic, a defence against the suffering and contradiction of the external world. His use of irony and wit, the comedy of characters, the twists and turns of phrase, the subversion of the utterances of other writers contribute to the comic effect. Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan compares ‘Latter-Day Psalms’ to Yehuda Amichai’s Selected Poems. Both poets were ambivalent about religion, and both sought to subvert what was ‘conventional, orthodox and habitual’.
Inevitably critics concentrate on Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry, and this collection of essays is no exception. Selected Prose is not easily available and not truly representative, and the uncollected prose lies in the nooks and crannies of private collections. Even so, John Oliver Perry’s substantial essay does succeed in giving an overview of Ezekiel’s prose. Perry identifies Ezekiel’s wide ranging set of critical principles, whether in the arts, politics or society, as serving a public role. He regards Ezekiel’s criticism as a product of his sense of self in which evaluation and critical judgement were dependent on self-analysis, self-criticism, self-evaluation.
Nissim Ezekiel Remembered concludes with two essays on Ezekiel’s plays. Tabish Khair draws an analogy between the relationship of the English language to other Indian languages, and the relationship of the drawing-room to other Indian domestic spaces. The drawing-room is a place of freedom and confinement, it facilitates connectivity and sets people apart. It also allows for the movement of English to other more private spaces such as the bedroom, the kitchen, the verandah. Vrinda Nabar examines Ezekiel’s use of theatrical devices such as dialogue and stage-presentation, to present a comment on marriage— the claustrophobia of a failed one in Marriage Poem and ‘a sham “working one” in don’t Call it Suicide.
Ezekiel ends ‘Latter-Day Psalms’ with a comment on ‘all that fuss about faith. .. the division of men into virtuous and wicked, describing it as ‘boring and pathetic’, but also ‘elemental, how spiritual the language, how fiery and human in the folly of its feeling!’ As with religion so with identity and nationhood—the nativism of M.K. Naik and Charu Bhagwat in the 80s has given way to a more internationalist notion of the Indian insider-outsider. Naik in ‘Nissim Ezekiel and Alienation’ described Ezekiel as a minor poet, incapable of transmuting his sense of alienation into anything more than irony, parody and satire, and Bhagwat found the poet’s casual poet-rascal-clown stance in Hymns in Darkness lacking in seriousness, reflecting a deeper malaise—that of the Indo-English Poet’s inability to write serious poetry. These concerns have not changed. Shirley Chew worries about Ezekiel’s sense of’(Un)-belonging’, Bruce King criticizes Leela Gandhi for resurrecting the old and now irrelevant controversies about the Indian writers ability to write poetry in English, Makarand Paranjape asks that Ezekiel be identified with the larger Indian spiritual tradition in line with Tagore and Aurobindo Ghosh, G.J.V. Prasad argues for a wider notion of Indianess which can accommodate the Urban, Westernised sensibility of Nissim Ezekiel, E.V. Ramakrishnan regards Ezekiel’s final acceptance of Jewishness in ‘Latter-Day Psalms’ as essentially the anguish of a member of a minority community, eager to belong but with limited means to do so. ‘It is’, says Ramakrishnan ‘an aspect of his modernity’. Shirish Chindhade and Prashant Sinha observe that the writing of ‘Edinburgh Interlude’ is a reflection of Ezekiel’s lifelong preoccupation with a need for an anchor and a quest for a home. Attitudes have swung in the opposite direction since the 80s, the preoccupations not at all.
Compiling a selection of uncollected poetry and prose in the absence of an archive was never going to be easy. I was not allowed to use Bombay University Library facilities and the Asiatic Society’s holdings are not organised enough to be consulted. Most editors of the little magazines that Ezekiel wrote for, have not preserved past issues of the journals they edited. Anil Dharker, former editor of Debonair had discarded the issues he had edited and the present staff of Debonair were nimble to help. Arun Sachdev’s wife requested her staff to locate relevant issues of ‘Z’ magazine for the articles on Artists but they were never found. Gieve Patel had not retained copies of Ezekiel’s reviews I ii his art exhibitions but he directed me to Osian’s archives. I have had to depend on the extraordinary generosity and foresight of Adil Jussawalla who made available his private books and papers and produced old issues of Debonair’ India Today and much more. John Oliver Perry emailed me a scanned copy of ‘The Creative Writer and Critic’. I would also like to thank Mr. Ramakrishnan for permission to use the P.E.N. All-India Centre Office, S.V. Raju for help with Freedom First editorials and issues of Quest dating back to the 50s, and Keki Daruwalla for support and encouragement. Saleem Ahmadullah and Joanna Ball, Sub-librarian, Trinity College Library provided scanning and photocopying facilities. Without their assistance this would have been a lesser volume.
Imtiaz Dharker contributed an original sketch which has enlivened the book considerably.
And finally tow big thanks to my wonderful mother Zerin Anklesaria for advising me on the finer points of editing and my ever considerate sister Persis without whose help I could never have subdued my obdurate computer.
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