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.
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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