Indian Writing in English- Nissim Ezekiel Essay
Indian Writing in English- Nissim Ezekiel
Indian poetry has flourished over the last 4000 years. Today, it is composed and written in more than twenty Indian languages, including English. It has always echoed the voice of the times and revealed the pains and passions of the people. Its growth has also reflected our rich cultural heritage. The history of Indian poetry makes us aware of its glorious past in contrast to its present state. Today, as the world is shrinking and the communication network projecting man on the global scene much faster, the past values are getting lost in the struggle man is involved with.
Issues confronting man have multiplied and so have his efforts for survival. Poetry today is facing the test of time. Poets need to be organized more vigorously than in the past to voice effectively their innermost thoughts and interact with each other more often. Giving away of awards to some of the few distinguished ones is not enough. Poets in India need to be encouraged in their creativity if we expect their contributions to transform our society. New life is to be given to old values which had stood us in good stead for so long. The poets should come to the forefront to undertake this job.
As such, organized efforts need to be made to promote the production and publication of good Indian poetry. Poetry written in different parts of India needs to be collected, interpreted and propagated. Indian English literature (IEL) refers to the body of work by writers in India who write in the English language and whose native or co-native language could be one of the numerous languages of India. It is also associated with the works of members of the Indian diaspora, such as V. S. Naipaul, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie, who are of Indian descent.
It is frequently referred to as Indo-Anglian literature. (Indo-Anglian is a specific term in the sole context of writing that should not be confused with the term Anglo-Indian). As a category, this production comes under the broader realm of postcolonial literature- the production from previously colonised countries such as India. A much over-looked category of Indian writing in English is poetry. As stated above, Rabindranath Tagore wrote in Bengali and English and was responsible for the translations of his own work into English.
Other early notable poets in English include Derozio, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Toru Dutt, Romesh Chunder Dutt, Sri Aurobindo, Sarojini Naidu, and her brother Harindranath Chattopadhyay. A generation of exiles also sprang from the Indian diaspora. Among these are names like Agha Shahid Ali, Sujata Bhatt, Richard Crasta, Yuyutsu Sharma and Vikram Seth. In modern times, Indian poetry in English was typified by two very different poets. Dom Moraes, winner of the Hawthornden Prize at the age of 19 for his first book of poems A Beginning went on to occupy a pre-eminent position among Indian poets writing in English.
Nissim Ezekiel, who came from India’s tiny Bene Israel Jewish community, created a voice and place for Indian poets writing in English and championed their work. A significant and torch bearer poet is Nissim Ezekiel. Recent Indian English poetry adds to, what O. P. Bhatnagar terms as, a process of collective discovery, affirming its richness, sensitivity and cultural complexity. If we examine the potential of the poery-making mind in English, we should now discover aspects of the essentially assimilative genius of the Indian people, snf a celebration of the vast chorus of voices that make Indian literature sing.
These poets write with an awareness of their milieu and environment rather than British or American rhetoric or intellectual attitudes like alienation or exile. They share the central core of contemporary realities of Indian life. The Indo – Anglian poetry is said to be essentially Indian and everything else afterwards. It expresses the essence of Indian personality and is also very sensitive to the changes of its national climate and it voices the aspirations and the joys and sorrows of Indians. It has been opined, that the Indo – Anglian poets are of two factions. The neo-modernists and the neo-symbolists.
The outlook of the former is coloured by humanism and irony and that of the latter is imbued with mysticism and sublimity, but a perfect blend is achieved by the two groups in the realms of beauty. A perfect example, of anlndo – Anglian poet, who was able to arrive at a synthesis between the two factions of poetry, is none other than Sarojini Naidu, for she took her stance in the neutral, middle ground, between the sacred and profane sphere of poetry she was at home in both the worlds and found them united in the realms of poetry. Nissim Ezekiel occupies an important place in post-Independence Indian English literature.
He has wielded a great influence as a leading poet, editor and an occasional playwright. Besides, he is a well-known critic. Sometimes he also emerges as a politician in the guise of a fighter for cultural freedom in India. Ezekiel held many important positions. He was for many years a Professor of English in Bombay University. He is a noted name in the field of journalism. In this capacity he was editor of many journals including Poetry India (1966-67), Quest (1955-57) and Imprint (1961-70), He was an Associate Editor to the Indian P. E. N. , Bombay.
Considered to be the Father of post independence Indian verse in English, Nissim Ezekiel was a prolific poet, playwright, critic, broadcaster and social commentator. He was born on December24, 1924 in a Jew family. His father was a professor of botany and mother was principal of her own school. Ezekiel was inclined to the poets such as T. S. Eliot. Yeats, Ezra Pound in his school days. The influence of all these literary personalities was apparent in his early works. His formal use of the English language was linked to colonialism and resulted in controversy.
His first collection of poetry ‘Time To Change’ was published by Fortune Press (London) in 1952. His poetry has all the elements of love, loneliness, lust, and creativity. Nissim Ezekiel went on to join The Illustrated Weekly of India as an assistant editor in 1953. ‘Sixty Poems’ was his next book followed by ‘The Unfinished Man’. Nissim Ezekiel started writing in formal English but with the passage of time his writing underwent a metamorphosis. As the time passed he acknowledged that ‘the darkness has its own secrets which light does not know.
His poem ‘The Night Of Scorpion’ is considered to be one of the best works in Indian English poetry and is used as a study material in India and British schools. Nissim Ezekiel worked as an advertising copywriter and general manager of a picture frame company . He was the art critic of The Times Of India (1964-66) and editor of The Poetry India(1966-67). He was also the co-founder of the literary monthly Imprint. Ezekiel was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983. In 1988 he received another honor,Padma Shri, for his contribution to the Indian English writing. He passed away on January 9, 2004, in Mumbai after a prolonged illness.
As a man of letters Nissim Ezekiel is a ‘Protean’ figure. His achievements as a poet and playwright are considerable. K. Balachandran writes, “The post-Independence Indian poetry saw its new poetry in the fifties. Among the new poets A. K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy, Shiv K. Kumar, Kamala Das, Monica Verma, O. P. Bhatnagar, Gauri Deshpande, Adil Jussawalla, Ezekiel occupies a prominent place. His versatile genius can be found in his poetry, plays, criticism, journalism and translation. Nissim Ezekiel has done a good work in Indian writing in English. He has written many volumes of poems—A Time to Change (1952), Sixty Poems (1953), The Third (1959), The Unfinished Man (1960), The Exact Name (1965) and others. His plays Nalini, Marriage Poem, The Sleep-Walkers, Songs of Deprivation and Who Needs No Introduction are already staged and published. He has also edited books Indian Writers in Conference (1964), Writing in India (1965), An Emerson Reader (1965), A Martin Luther King Reader (1965) and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1972).
His literary essays published in magazines and papers are innumerable. The notable among them are ‘Ideas and Modern Poetry’ (1964), ‘The Knowledge of Dead Secrets’ (1965), ‘Poetry as Knowledge’ (1972), ‘Sri Aurobindo on Poetry’ (1972), ‘Should Poetry be Read to Audience? ‘ (1972), ‘K. N. Daruwalla’ (1972), ‘Poetry and Philosophy,’ ‘Hindu Society’ (1966). He has written essays on art criticism ‘Modern Art in India’ (1970), ‘How Good is Sabavala? ‘ (1973), and ‘Paintings of the Year 1973’ (1973).
His e s s a y s o n social criticism Thoreau and Gandhi’ (1971), ‘Censorship and the Writer’ (1963), ‘How Normal is Normality’ (1972), ‘Tradition and All That a Case Against the Hippies’ (1973), ‘A Question of Sanity’ (1972) and ‘Our Academic Community’ (1968) are varied and auto telic of his wide interest. Ezekiel is an editor of several journals encouraging writing poetry, plays and criticisrm He also asked many writers for translation, affecting the theory and practice of the young poets. The writers like Rilke and W. B. Yeats influenced Ezekiel.
Like Yeats, he treated poetry as the ‘record of the mind’s growth. ‘ His poetic bulk indicates his growth as a poet-critic and shows his personal importance. Chetan Karnani states, “At the centre was that sincere devoted mind that wanted to discover itself. In the process, he managed to forge a unique achievement of his own. ” The poet Ezekiel has already published several volumes of poems. For him poetry-writing was a lofty vocation, a way of life. He treated life as a journey where poetry would be the main source of discovering and organising one’s own self.
In a sense, poetry to Ezekiel became a way for self-realisation. He calls life a texture of poetry. He identifies himself with poetry. So all of his volumes of verse are well-knit and they are in the poet’s view, a continuation of each other. Ezekiel’s experiments in prose rhythms and his fine sense of structure and metrical ability. The verse rhythms of T. S. Eliot seem to haunt hi s mind. Ezekiel’s Si x t y Poems (1953), his second volume of poems was published in 1953. But these poems are loose in structure and they are less appealing.
Night of the Scorpion’, in which Ezekiel recalls the behaviour of ‘the peasants’, his father, his mother and a holy man when his mother was poisoned by a scorpion’s sting. Here the aim is to find poetry in ordinary reality as observed, known, felt, experienced rather than as the intellect thinks it should be. While the peasants pray and speak of incarnations, his father, ‘sceptic, rationalist’, tries ‘every curse and blessing, powder, mixture, herb and hybrid’ and a holy man performs a rite.
After a day the poison is no longer felt and, in a final irony, his mother, in contrast to the previous feverish activity centred upon her, makes a typical motherly comment: My mother only said Thank God the scorpion picked on me and spared my children. The ‘Thank God’ is doubly ironic as it is a commonplace expression of speech in contrast to all the previous religious and superstitious activity. Ezekiel’s purpose is not, however, an expression of scepticism but rather the exact notation of what he saw as a child. The aim is not to explain but to make real by naming, by saying ‘common things’.
The poem is a new direction, a visionof ordinary reality, especially of Indian life, unmediated by cold intellect. The new purpose is seen in the poem’s style, unrhymed, with line lengths shaped by natural syntactical units and rhythm created by the cadences of the speaking voice into a long verse paragraph, rather than the stanzaic structure used in earlier poems. In his poetry there is the truth of acknowledging what is felt and experienced in its complexity, contradictions, pleasures, fears and disillusionments without preconceived ideas of what poetry should say about the poet and life.
Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Night of The Scorpion’ is much appreciated by the critics and it has found place in many anthologies for as excellence, Critics, commenting on its aesthetic beauty expressed different views. In their critical sweep, they brought everything from superstitious ritualism to modern rationalism. One can find that in the poem superstitious ritualism or sceptic rationalism or even the balance of the both with expression of Indian ethos through maternal love in the Indian way, is nothing but scratching the surface.
The poem has something more gigantic than its face value, which as I find is the symbolic juxtaposition of the forces of darkness and light that is intrinsically centripetal in the poem. It is ‘Night’ of The Scorpion’ with the first word absorbing accent. It seems to have been implicitly contrived here that ‘Night should stand as a symbol of darkness with the ‘Scorpion’ as the symbol of evil. Such ingenuity in craftsmanship takes the poem to the higher level of understanding. Prof.
Birje Patil is right in putting that in “Night of The Scorpion”, where evil is symbolized by the scorpion, The reader made to participate in the ritual as well as suffering through’ a vivid evocation of the poison moving in the mother’s blood’. And evil has always been associated with darkness, the seamy side of our life, in human psyche. It has always been the integral part of theology, in whatever form it has manifested that suffering helps in removing that darker patch in human mind, he patch that has been a besetting sin of man’s existence.
May the sum of evil Balanced in this unreal world gainst the sum of good become diminished by your pain, they said These lines amply testify that the poem aims at achieving something higher than its narrative simplicity. The choric refrain ‘they said’ in the chain of reactions made by the village peasants is undoubtedly ironic, but the poet hasn’t as much to stress the concept of sin, redemption or rebirth ass he has to insinuate the indomitable force of darkness gripping the minds of the unenlightened. Going through the poem attentively more than once, it can’t fail catching our notice that modern rationalism is also equally shallow and perverse.
It is also a road leading to confusion where through emerges scepticism, the other darker patch on our modernized existence. The image of the father in this poem speaks volumes for this capsizing modernism which sandwiches in its arm- space the primitive and the perverted. The “sceptic rationalist’ father trying ‘powder, mixture, herb and hybrid’ bears upon human primitivism and when he experiments with ‘a little paraffin upon a bitten toe and put a match to it he becomes a symbol of perversion in the modern man’s psyche. Christopher Wiseman puts it, “… fascinating tension between personal crisis and mocking social observation”” ; neither there is any personal crisis. On the other hand there is spiritual compassion and an intense urge for getting rid of this psychological syndrome that the whole modern world ha s b e e n caught, the slow-moving poison of this syndromic scorpion into the very veins of creation, the image of the mother in agony nullifying the clear vision of human thought and enveloping the whole of humanity In the darker shades of confusion more chaolic, troubles the poet as much sharply as the sting of the poisonous worm.
There is crisis, but it is the crisis of human existence thaat needs lo be overcome. The poet, though a distant observer, doesn’t take a stance of detachment. On the exact opposite, he watches with curiosity “the flame feeding on my mother’, but being uncertain whether the paraffin flame would cleanse her of the ugony of the absorbing poison, he loses himself in a thoughtful trance. The whole poem abounds with these two symbols of darkness and light. In the very beginning the poet has ushered in this symbolic juxta position and then as the poem advanced, built upon it the whole structure of his fascinating architecture in the lines.
Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice parting with his poison – flash of diabolic tail in the dark room he risked the rain again. The incessant rain stands for the hope and regeneration where with is juxtaposed the destructive hurdles to fruitfy that hope. But the constructive, life giving rain continuoues and the evil, having fulfilled its parts, departs. Then afterwards other hurdels more preying than the first, come in. More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours more insects, and the endless rain My mother twisted through and through groaning on a mat.
The symbols of light and darkness, candles lanterns, neighbours and insects and rain again are notworthy. But the force of light gains a width handover the evil force and life is restored once again in its joyous stride and this life long struggle between forces of darkness and light reaches a crescendo when – after twenty hours It lost its sting. Here, In the above lines, lies the beuaty of the poem, when the ascending steps of darkness, being chased by the force of following light are ripped down; when at last on the peak the chaser wins and the chased slips down.
The man who has not understood what motherhood is. might be taken in by such expression of motherly love. But I convincingly feel that any woman would have exclaimed the same thing as the mother in this poem did. In my view, it would have been truly Indian had the mother in her tortures remembered her children and though helplessly, had she desired to protect them lest the scorpion might catch them unawres. Anyway, the beauty of the poem remains- unmarred by such revision. The poem is a thing of beauty par excellence.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 5 January 2017
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