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Nissim Ezekiel and the post-1950 Poetry

Scene in Mumbai
I was never a student of Nissim Ezekiel. Before I met him, I had heard of
him as an English language poet in polyglot Bombay and Editor of Quest.
Though I wrote poetry in Marathi and English, my English poems were
published only in my college magazine. However, in Marathi I was hailed as
a rising star on the literary horizon by Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni who happened
to be Nissim’s friend. So Nissim had heard of me, too.

In those days, Bombay ( not yet Mumbai ) had a population of less than four
million and the Northern suburbs were still like small towns seperated from
one another. Downtown Bombay, with its predominantly colonial, Victorian
Gothic monuments and the art decco row of buildings at Marine Drive, was
almost a different city from the middle-class central Bombay suburb of
Dadar where I lived. I went to the Ramnarayan Ruia College in Matunga
East which was a red-brick institution as compared with the Oxbridge status
St. Xavier’s and Elphinstone colleges in South Bombay.

I first met Nissim at the office of the Indian Committee for Cultural Freedom
where its then Secretary, Prabhakar Padhye, introduced us. Padhye had been
Editor of the Marathi daily Navashakti and a well-known literary critic,
travelogue writer, and essayist. He had a good opinion of my Marathi
writing, though I was considered only vaguely promising then.

Nissim impressed me in our very first meeting as a man without any airs,
almost self-deprecating, but a warm and friendly human being. He had just
published my friend, Arun Kolatkar’s first poems in Quest. He asked me if I
could contribute any translations of Marathi poetry. I mumbled my assent
without telling him that I wrote poems in English as well and would like to
see them in print.

At that time, everybody who wrote in English in India addressed imaginary

editors, publishers, critics, and audiences in England and more vaguely in
North America. They were not aware that they were on neither side of the
Atlantic and that the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal were nearer to
We were all awed by the achievement of Dom Moraes, my exact
contemporary, whose first book of poems won The Hawthornden Prize, and
who rubbed shoulders with legends and celebrities in English literature.
Compared to Dom, Nissim was a local, Bombay poet. Years later, when
Dom in his last days returned to his childhood city Bombay, he was an
outsider trying to reconnect and Nissim had become the doyen among the
Bombay English poets in India.

Despite his early mandatory visit to London---then the imaginary centre of

the Anglophone world to all departments of English in the Indian
academia--- Nissim remained since a quintessentially Bombay Indian
English poet. “My backward place is where I am.” as he wryly observes in
one of his well-known poems. He belonged to an earlier generation than all
of us whose horizons had widened after our exposure to American poetry
and European poetry in English translation. Chronologically, Nissim was a
contemporary of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. Unlike Arun
Kolatkar, who was influenced by William Carlos Williams as well as
Ginsberg, Nissim took his own stoic stance and remained where he was.

Nissim’s classic critique of V. S. Naipaul’s view of India shows his acumen

as a literary critic as well as his rootedness in India as a Bene Israeli,
Marathi-speaking Indian living in India. His sister Asha Bhende was a
prominent actress in the Marathi theatre. However, Nissim could speak only
a hesitant and stilted Marathi. Whenever we met, he would greet me in
Marathi and I had to navigate the conversation to English which made us
equal and comfortable. Despite his lack of fluency in Marathi, Nissim did
collaborate with Vrinda Nabar to translate a few poems of that fine Marathi
poetess of the 1950s and 1960s---Indira Sant.

When he was poetry editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, Nissim invited
me to contribute; and he published the first poems in my long cycle
commenced in 1966-67 under the group title Breakfasts and Deaths. Adil
Jussawalla picked up two of those for his Penguin New Writing in India.

The Gujarati Parichay Trust backed Poetry India---the first poetry magazine
of its kind in India with Nissim Ezekiel as its editor. Nissim tried to involve
all of us in this venture. He published Arun Kolatkar’s translations of nine
poems of Tukaram. He got me to translate the contemporary Marathi poet
Purushottam Shivram Rege and to review his collection Dusara Pakshi. He
also published my translations of the Marathi poets Mardhekar, Vinda
Karandikar, and Sadanand Rege. He published A. K. Ramanujan’s
translations from old Tamil and medieval Kannada. Unfortunately, for
reasons I do not recall now, Poetry India folded up just after it had become a
rallying point for Indian English poets and translators.

It was Nissim who published Gieve Patel’s first collection of English poems.
The generation gap did not come in the way of his encouragement of
younger English poets. He did play a vital role in making Bombay the most
active centre of Indian poetry in English after P. Lal’s Writers Workshop in
Calcutta. Lal published a lot of Bengali sari-clad poetry books making the
poets pay a share of the publication cost. Many of these vanity publications
have been deservingly forgotten. Nissim’s way with younger poets was
different. He treated them as equals just as he is said to have treated his
students. He was not ambitious as a publisher. But he promoted poetry and
excellence in his own way.

When Linda Hess--- the now famous American translator of Kabir--- was in
Bombay, she was very close to Nissim and was often seen in his company.
Those days, I lived with Viju and little Ashay in one terrace room in Sion. I
invited Linda to a bhang party which some of my friends were attending.
She turned up with Nissim. I could not imagine Nissim ingesting cannabis
with a bunch of bohemians.

As it happens when bhang paste mixed with crushed almonds, pistachio

nuts, sugar and spices is drunk, there is a period of expectant silence before
the drug takes its effect. This may take from thirty to forty minutes. Then
each individual responds in an ideosyncratic way. A number of people find
the effect funny. Others grow serious and pensive. Some experience acute
insecurity and anxiety. Not all are ever equally disoriented or spaced out.

Just when everybody began to experience a high, there was an intrusion.

Arun Kolatkar, uninvited, barged in. He had become an alcoholic and used
to be aggressive and violent. He demanded to know what Nissim was doing
at my place.

*(insert the paragraph with an * at the bottom of the article)

Arun had a score to settle with Nissim. After getting his diploma in fine arts,
Arun went looking for a job to Nissim who worked then for an advertising
agency. Arun showed him his portfolio of paintings. Nissim took a look and
appreciated the work. However, he tried to explain to Arun that the
commercial needs of an advertising agency were quite different from what a
fine artist has to offer.

After that, Arun did take a diploma in applied art and went on to become the
top Art Director in Bombay, the mecca of Indian advertising. He became an
alcoholic for a variety of reasons; and got cured, too, after a relatively short
period. He resumed his professional career as a graphic artist at the highest
level and, as a poet, became the pre-eminent English and Marathi poet in

When we met at a multi-lingual poetry reading after the serial bomb-blasts

in Bombay, Nissim smiled warmly at Viju and me, and he remarked to me, “
Every time I meet you, you look more and more like Tukaram to me.” I was
not sure what he exactly meant by that. It seemed to be his compliment to
me for Says Tuka. The same night, after the reading, since we were taking a
taxi to Dadar, Viju offered a lift to Nissim. We took him to his mother’s flat
at The Retreat a now-dilipidated building on Bellasis Road, Byculla. We
went up to the flat with Nissim. The room we entered had one dingy light.
There were books scattered all over the place and thick layers of dust over
them. There were cobwebs and a pervasive musty smell. We were horrified.

A few days later, a college in Pune asked me if I would chair a reading of

Nissim’s. I agreed. But a week later, they told me that the reading was
indefinitely postponed as Professor Ezekiel was unwell. Little did I know
then that Nissim had begun to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. I
heard an unsettling story from Bombay. A former student of Nissim found
him sitting quietly on a bench at the Churchgate railway station while rush
hour commuters passed him by. The former student went to Nissim and
asked him, “ How are you, Sir? Do you recognize me?”
Nissim looked at him blankly and said, “ I am afraid I don’t know who I am.
But I suppose I am a good man.”

The truth of this story cannot be verified. It may just be an anecdote.

However, it sounds to me just like a genuine Nissim Ezekiel observation---
self-effacing and devastating in its implications.

----Dilip Chitre

*When Arun addressed Nissim recalling this, it became an ugly situation.
Nissim and Linda hastily left, and so did the others. Arun left too. Viju and I,
our bhang party disbanded, tried to ascend to the upper spheres from where
such human disorder seems funnier and funnier.

(insert at * above in the main text)


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