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
There are surely thousands of stories yet to be told of the Bene Israel who made the decision to emigrate (some to South Africa—most to Israel) after Partition. There were odd cases, like that of Fayzee Rahamon, the Bene Israel court painter to two generations of Muslim princes of Janjira, Nawab Sidi Ahmed Khan and his son Nawab Sidi Mohammad Khan III. (Another Bene Israel, Shalom Bupaji Wargharkar, had held the post of chancellor in the nawab’s court at the end of the 19th century.) In the end, the Jewish painter married a Muslim princess, converted to Islam, and emigrated to Karachi at the invitation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Nizzim Ezekiel’s story is just as rare, if truer to his origins. A “Saturday Oil-Presser” (translation of the Marathi label for his ethnicity, the day mentioned being the day his ancestors would not press oil) speaking as the dominant voice of “Indo-Anglian” poetry in the first decades of an independent India, he taught in Bombay colleges and worked as an art critic for the most English of Indian dailies, the Times of India, as well as leading India’s section of P.E.N. for many years and writing plays. He taught abroad twice, invited to lecture first at the University of Leeds and then at the University of Chicago. The Journal of South Asian Literature of the University of Chicago dedicated an issue to him in 1976; because it is available online in the University of Chicago’s Digital South Asia Library, it offers the easiest way for a curious reader to sample the poet’s work.
In commenting on the writing of another Indian outsider, V.S. Naipaul, Ezekiel wrote in “Naipaul’s India and Mine,” 1965: “In the India which I have presumed to call mine, I acknowledge without hesitation the existence of all the darkness Mr. Naipaul discovered. I am not a Hindu and my background makes me a natural outsider; circumstances and decisions relate me to India. In other countries I am a foreigner. In India I am an Indian. When I was eighteen, a friend asked me what my ambition was. I said with the naive modesty of youth, ‘To do something for India.’ ”
In a passage from Ezekiel’s review of Naipaul’s Area of Darkness, Ezekiel calls himself “incurably critical and sceptical,” in regard to himself and to India. He observes that his critical posture “does not prevent the growth of love.” He follows that declaration with a sadder, somewhat wistful note that “critical, sceptical love does not beget love.” In “Minority Poem,” Ezekiel observes (apparently of the Hindu majority): “I lack the means to change /their amiable ways, /although I love their gods. /It’s the language really /separates, whatever else /Is shared. … It’s not the mythology /or the marriage customs /that you need to know, /It’s the will to pass /through the eye of a needle /to self-forgetfulness.”
The limit of Nissim Ezekiel’s ambit as a poet has much to do with that observation. His love of India, of the Indian Everyman—Parsi, Muslim, Marathi, or generically Hindi in his particulars—practically omitted his own Bene Israel community, which had melted away from the Mumbai landscape. His poems engage with friends, family, lovers, a musty professor observed on the city’s train, an old servant, a transient family on a city footpath—individuals glimpsed in the tangled multiplicity of familiar but foreign cultures.
Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher
By Nissim Ezekiel
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
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering -
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.
The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart’s dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.
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