On January 9, 2004, the Jewish English-language Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel died at 79. Ezekiel was a minority of a minority of a minority. A member of India’s tiny Bene Israel community, he was one of the few who remained after the country gained independence in 1947 and most of Bene Israel moved to Israel.
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It was even more unusual that he chose to write in English, even as the period of British rule, the Raj, was coming to an end. Still, for Ezekiel, the choice wasn't difficult at all.
Nissim Ezekiel was born on December 16, 1924, in Bombay (now Mumbai). His father, Moses Ezekiel, was a professor of botany and zoology at Wilson College, a secondary school affiliated with the University of Bombay. His mother, Diana Ezekiel, was also an educator; she founded a school in the city and served as its principal. His father worked in English, while his mother’s school used the local Marathi language.
According to tradition, Bene Israel is an ancient Jewish community whose members sailed to the Indian subcontinent across the Arabian Sea as early as the first millennium B.C.E. Modern genetic studies suggest a much later transition from the Levant to the subcontinent, anywhere from 600 to 1,000 years ago. Either way, Bene Israel adopted the local language but maintained Jewish tradition, including Shabbat observance. Its members began migrating to Bombay in the 18th century.
Like Kafka writing in German
Both Ezekiel parents were secular-minded. As the son wrote in his poem “Jewish Wedding in Bombay,” his father, “had drifted into the liberal / creed but without much conviction, taking us all with him. / My mother was very proud of being ‘progressive.’”
He grew up not only reading English literature, but preferring the poetry of Yeats and Eliot, for example, over local efforts. Writing about Ezekiel in Tablet Magazine, Patricia B. Conway, suggests that 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.”
Nissim Ezekiel studied literature at Wilson College, earning his M.A. in 1947, and began teaching while he was still a student, a period when he was also involved in politics. Ezekiel became a follower of M.N. Roy, head of the Radical Democratic Party, a former communist who during World War II pushed for India to support the Allies.
In late 1948, Ezekiel sailed to England, where he spent the next three and a half years. Among other things, he studied philosophy at Birkbeck College, London. He also was involved in theater and film, and wrote, bringing out his first book of poetry there, “A Time to Change,” at about the same time he returned home, in 1952.
'I have made my commitments now'
Ezekiel made his way back to India working as a deck-swabber on a steamer that was carrying arms to Indochina. He later wrote about his decision to eventually keep India as his base in the poem “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.”
During the decades that followed, Ezekiel published a total of nine books of poetry (one an anthology), and he taught at colleges both in India and abroad. (During several years as a visiting professor in the United States, between 1967 and 1972, he noted that he took LSD 24 times.) He worked as a critic for the Illustrated Weekly of India, the English-language Times of India, and for All-India Radio. He also translated poetry from Marathi to English, and was co-editor of an anthology of Indian fiction and poetry.
In 1983, Ezekiel received a prize from India’s National Academy of Letters (the Sahitya Akademi) for his collection “Latter-Day Psalms,” and five years later he was granted the Padma-Shri, India's highest civilian honor.
During much of his final decade, Ezekiel suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He died in Mumbai, on this day in 2004.