India’s Most Famous Jewish Poet
Nissim Ezekiel, born in Bombay and schooled in London, wrote in English from India about familiar but foreign cultures
The outlines of Nissim Ezekiel’s biography seem familiar. Scion of a modestly bourgeois Jewish family, a generation or two removed from the traditions of rural village life; a young writer living on the margins of a great European empire in dissolution, he returned to his native city after a sojourn in the metropolis; bound to his city by complex ties: work, loves, family, and the intimate knowledge of a culture to which he would always be to some degree an outsider.
Berlin? Prague? Not at all: For Ezekiel, the most famous Jewish poet to be raised speaking Marathi, a language of Western India, the empire was British, and its waning moment came decades later. The pilgrimage was to London’s Birkbeck College, undertaken at the end of World War II, and the poet’s home was always, immutably, Bombay. Of his return to Bombay, he wrote in English, in “Background, Casually” (1965):
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.
He knew his “backward place” both as Mumbai, as well as the British Bombay—though he became India’s first important poet to write in English after independence in 1947. His decision to write in the language of empire at the moment when India emerged as an independent nation was to him as natural and inevitable as Kafka’s pouring out his soul in German in an era of Slavic nationalism. He said, simply, that he could write in no other language than English, a logical enough corollary of his father’s being headmaster of an English-language secondary school. (His mother taught in another school, speaking Marathi, which for centuries had been the language of Bene Israel Jews.)
If from the beginning of his career his Indian audience was discomfited by his choice of language, Ezekiel’s stock as a poet has fallen even lower since his death in 2004. He was silenced by Alzheimer’s years before that; his last book of poems was published in 1982. Today he is often dismissed as a minor literary modernist—a poet whose ironic, self-deprecating voice and attention to the nuances of Mumbai life are recalled as little more than literary curiosities, though Oxford University Press did release in 2005 an edition of his Collected Poems (still in print and now in a second edition).
Of the critics who have taken more than a passing interest in Ezekiel, Makarand R. Paranjape traces a strong, coherent spiritual dimension in his poems. Curiously, he asserts that Ezekiel’s spirituality is “more Hindu than Jewish.” Perhaps the critic’s own cultural grounding predisposes him to read Ezekiel as a Hindu poet, but to this reader Ezekiel’s questioning of his own motives as a poet and his implicit veneration of creation as a holy act, as well as his mordant sense of his own minor role in the human comedy, are Jewish to the core.
Ezekiel’s father (like Kafka’s) had distanced himself from Jewish practice. Despite this, and even though the poet set himself apart from the majority of his fellow Bene Israel Jews, who largely chose immigration to Israel in the decades following Partition and Indian independence, Nissim’s Jewish identity was never in doubt in his poetry. He writes in “Jewish Wedding in Bombay”:
The Sabbath was for betting and swearing and drinking.
Nothing extravagant, mind you, all in a low key
and very decently kept in check.
My father used to say,
these orthodox chaps certainly know how to draw the line
in their own crude way. He himself had drifted into the liberal
creed but without much conviction, taking us all with him.
My mother was very proud of being ‘progressive’.
Makarand Paranjape notes, quoting lines from Ezekiel’s first published poems, “Always he is a ‘man aspiring /To the Good, which may be God’ and the way is ‘Prayer and poetry, poetry and prayer’.” Ezekiel was to assert in a later poem, “Prayer,” that … “Indifference /Alone is unredeemable. /The rest is faith, belief and truth /Pursued, at any rate, in prayer. /This is all I know of prayer.”
The poet’s songs, in their finely tuned observation of his own sensibility and his links to the world around him—Bombay—flow from this substrate, the grounding in Jewish culture that he owns and recognizes. In “Declaration,” again from Ezekiel’s first book, A Time to Change and Other Poems, published in London in 1952, the poet observes: “Obedience to a comprehended law is freedom, peace and power. Creation moves in submission tirelessly. Unyielding men are broken by the hours.” Tracing this theme of obedience through his work, we come to Ezekiel’s “Concluding Latter-Day Psalm” in his last collection of poems, Latter-Day Psalms (1982): “Now I am through with /the Psalms; they are /part of my flesh.”
As one of the Bene Israel who decided to stay behind in India after the birth of the State of Israel, Ezekiel and his family belonged to a remnant of a remnant. “My ancestors, among the castes, /were aliens crushing seed for bread,” he recollects in “Background, Casually.” The Bene Israel preserved the story of their origins: seven men and an uncertain number of women, shipwrecked somewhere in the northern reaches of the Konkan coast of western India. No one came looking for them, so there they stayed and made their lives, oil-pressers turned rice and coconut cultivators and fishermen on the coastal fringe of the great Arabian Sea that had nearly swallowed their ancestors whole.
Virtually indistinguishable from their neighbors—the last British census in Raigad district, in 1941, the center of the Bene Israel society, put the population at 82 percent Hindi, 17 percent Muslim, the one remaining hundredth undoubtedly Jewish. The Bene Israel became to all outward appearances Marathi, in their speech, their dress, and their livelihood. But they preserved the rudiments of their Jewish identity—foodways, customs, and a few prayers—above all, keeping Shabbat. Unlike the Muslim Pashtun of the Northwest Frontier (now Pakistan), the Bene Israel were never anyone’s candidate for Lost Tribe. They were peasants, lost oil-pressers from Judea.
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