[Reader-list] Nissim Ezekiel passes away

Shivam Vij zest_india at yahoo.co.in
Tue Jan 13 17:07:15 IST 2004

  Mourning the poet who mused in night of scorpion 
  Monday, January 12, 2004   

They came in, though not in impressive numbers, to send off
a literary legend. A patriarch who was more loved than
feared. A teacher who would make his every lecture
insightful, every remark valuable. When the literary world
unabashedly worshipped cacophonous cronyism, he created a
culture of conversation. The colossus departed quietly. 

Nissim Ezekiel, India’s most famous Anglo-English poet, who
passed away on Friday evening, was laid to rest at Jewish
Cemetery, Worli on Sunday. Friends and family members, many
of them sporting Jewish skull caps, bid adieu to Ezekiel,
the czar of poetry culture in Mumbai. 

Even as his son Elkana turned away photographers (perhaps
he carries a grudge against the press for having criticised
Ezekiel’s family after the poet fell ill with Alzheimer’s
in 1998), Ezekiel’s last rites were performed with great

Wrapped in unsewn, scent-daubed shroud, the once livewire
Ezekiel lay calm on a bench even as visitors sprinkled his
body with soil from Jerusalem, as if connecting the
departed soul with his religion’s holiest city. 

Ariel Ezra, a short, middle-aged priest from Jewish
Synagogue at Agripada, joined in by some co-religionists,
sent a prayer in Hebrew. Malti, the ayah who nursed Ezekiel
through his six terrible years at Dr Dias’ Bandra clinic,
sobbed: ‘‘He was like my father.’’ 

Strangely, except for two poets (Adil Jussawala and Ranjit
Hoskote), the rest of the Mumbai intelligentsia gave
Ezekiel’s funeral a miss. His sister Asha Bhende, daughter
Kalpana (another daughter Kavita is away in Canada), niece
Geeta and nephew Nandu were among those who attended the

‘‘He was my fondest uncle. I remember attending his poetry
readings. We were proud of him,’’ reminisced Geeta, who
lives in Washington DC.
  ‘Death is a relief for Nissim’ 
   Express News Service 
   Sunday, January 11, 2004   

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 

‘‘I was dreading this day. Ever since he was diagnosed with
the disease. It’s like losing a parent.’’ Author and poet R
Raj Rao speaks in whispers. That’s all his grief allows him
as the news of his ‘favourite teacher’ Nissim Ezekiel’s
death sinks in. 

Poet and literary icon, Ezekiel, 79, passed away in Mumbai
on Friday evening after living with Alzheimer’s disease for
six years. And Rao, who wrote Ezekiel’s biography, Nissim
Ezekiel: The Authorised Biography, in 2000 can’t believe he
has another loss to cope with. ‘‘First it was Riyadh Wadia
and now it’s Ezekiel,’’ he says, his voice tapering away.
‘‘Personally, I think it is a relief for Nissim. He
suffered for a long time.’’ 

Ezekiel was born in Bombay in 1924. He was educated at
Wilson College, Bombay and Birkbeck College, London. He was
a Reader in American Literature at the University of Bombay
and was a Visiting Professor at Leeds University in 1964. 

He edited the journal PEN for many years and was an
inspiration to many poets and writers. ‘‘For a lot of us,
especially during our formative years, Nissim was an iconic
figure,’’ writer Shobhaa De recollects. ‘‘He always made
time for budding writers and exposed them to new forms and
styles of writing.’’ Nandu Bhende, musician and Ezekiel’s
nephew, remembers him as ‘‘this strange uncle’’. ‘‘He
inspired us to believe in what we wanted to do and go out
and do it.’’
  Forever the alien outsider 
  Nissim Ezekiel stayed true to his contradictions, never
mind the anthologists 
  By R. Raj Rao 
  The Indian Express
  Monday, January 12, 2004   

He was slighted by a teacher at school who once said
sarcastically, “Listen everybody, we have a poet in class.”
At that moment it came to him: he would make poetry his
calling, regardless of what the world thought. His life,
from that day onward, was devoted to the Muse. For Nissim
Ezekiel, born in Bombay on December 16, 1924, to
Bene-Israel Jewish parents, poetry was not just a hobby or
pastime. It was a vocation. As literary historian Bruce
King says, others wrote poems, Nissim wrote poetry. 

>From the beginning, he was the alien outsider. The freedom
struggle was at its peak during his teenage years. Yet,
unlike the intelligentsia of his day, he wasn’t drawn to
Gandhi but to the more maverick M.N. Roy. He took Roy’s
Marxist teachings so seriously that at one stage he
actually left home to live in a slum. It wasn’t Indian
poets like Tagore or Aurobindo that he regarded as literary
gurus, but poets of the English canon such as T.S. Eliot,
W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound. And the French poet Rilke. What he
learnt from these Masters was that poetry must be used as a
means of self improvement, it must use language as
elegantly and precisely as it could. 

Was form more important or content? Nissim could never
really resolve the question. To anyone who asked, he’d
explain that content could never be at the expense of form
— if it wasn’t for form, how was a poem different from a
piece of journalism. Yet his own poetry was the poetry of
statement. A poem did not seem profound enough to him
unless it performed a moral function. 

This is what brought him discredit in the ’80s and ’90s.
Anthologists began to compare him to Ramanujan and
Kolatkar, both of whom displayed a marked preference for
the image, and found him wanting. Their verdict was that
while Ramanujan and Kolatkar were great poets, Nissim was
merely tolerable. He was too much of the orthodox Jew to be
able to take on the role of poet. 

But, clearly, there was a misunderstanding here. For
Nissim, as for any mature poet, form and content, image and
statement, were two sides of the same coin. It was
simplistic to separate them. Besides, by stressing on
poetry’s moral purpose, he was only demonstrating that
human welfare was important to him. Art, for him, could
never exist for its own sake. It had to contribute to human
betterment. This, surely, is one of the yardsticks of great
literature. It is little wonder, then, that Nissim gave up
other, more lucrative jobs in order to become a university
teacher. For the same reason, he made up his mind to settle
down in India, rather than the West. Unsatisfied still, he
became an activist for the cause of poetry. He devoted his
most productive years to gen-next poets, whom he
indefatigably advised and nurtured. He felt that unless
this was done, poetry could never flourish, given the
pedestrian and prosaic times in which we live. 

To those who dismiss Nissim as an orthodox Jew preoccupied
with sin and redemption, one has only to provide an
inventory of the things he did. He was the able seaman who
laboured on a cargo ship to earn his passage from England
to India. He was the junkie who took LSD and used poetry as
a pretext for his addiction. He was the debauched
heterosexual lover. And so on. 

Poetry thrives on conflict. Our sweetest songs are those
that tell of saddest thought. It isn’t a good idea for a
poet to aim at nirvana, even if his verse gives the
impression that he does. Nissim understood this only too
well. One half of him was Plato, the other Aristotle. If
there was a contradiction somewhere, he was prepared to
live with it, even if the world called him inconsistent. 

(R. Raj Rao is the author of ‘Nissim Ezekiel: The
Authorized Biography’)

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