1. Sometime in 1998, just before sitting on a plane that would get me out of Bombay, I went to see the poet Nissim Ezekiel. He was in his usual room at the PEN center, sitting alone at a dust-trap of a desk piled with periodicals, manuscripts and books. I had called to ask if I could see him, but when I walked into the room it was clear he had not been expecting me.
It was an early indication of the Alzheimer's that would eventually claim him.
2. As we got up to leave the office a woman appeared, a clerk or typist. Will you be coming back, she asked. The poet Ezekiel frowned at her. Of course, he said, of course I'll be coming back. I'm going out for coffee. With that he stalked off, leaving the woman gazing after him with some consternation.
3. We walked across the street to a small restaurant that served coffee and South Indian snacks. Everybody knew him of course, but mixed with the familiarity was a kind of callousness. Uncle, what are you having? said the waiter who took our order. The poet Ezekiel appeared not to notice any unpleasantness; he smiled uncertainly, he was a small island of serenity. He wore a frayed blue and white shirt buttoned at the wrists, caked with dirt at cuff and collar. He was living somewhere in Marine Lines, in one room. He would commute by bus to the PEN office at Churchgate carrying a plastic bag full of possessions. I wondered how many of the people in that restaurant knew he was among the nation's most distinguished poets.
4. The poet Ezekiel was born in 1924 in Bombay. His parents were Bene-Israeli, secular Indian Jews. They spoke Marathi and English. His father was a professor of botany and zoology, later a college principal. His mother founded and ran a Marathi-medium school. In his early twenties he was a member of M N Roy's Radical Democractic Party. The year after Indian Independence he took off for England, on a one-way ticket given him by his friend, the legendary theater director, art collector and impresario Ebrahim Alkazi.
5. For three-and-a-half years in England, the poet Ezekiel lived a bohemian life of poverty and poetry. He was a clerk and dishwasher. He lived in a basement room that would appear frequently in his poems. From 'Background,
Twenty-two: time to go abroad.
First, the decision, then a friend
To pay the fare. Philosophy,
Poverty and Poetry, three
Companions shared my basement room.
6. In 1952 he returned to India. He worked for passage on a British cargo ship that was taking armaments to Indo-China. The poet Ezekiel scrubbed the decks and hauled coal. At around the same time he was setting sail, London's Fortune Press published his first book and copies awaited him when he disembarked in Bombay. The book was titled A Time for Change and it was nothing short of revolutionary for the time.
7. He was the first Indian poet to use contemporary language, without the high-flown style and 19th-century rhetoric that marked the verse of Sarojini Naidu and Aurobindo Ghosh. His tone was ironic, self-mocking, layered with complexities of texture and voice. In a steady progression of books over the next 35 years he would refine that voice, and in the process, teach several generations of Indian poets how to write. He wrote about the city, about sex, about real men and women. In the following lines from 'Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher' he celebrates the importance of patience, especially for the activities described in the title:
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.
8. In Bombay he joined The Illustrated Weekly of India as assistant editor, founded Quest, a cultural and political journal, worked as a copywriter, factory manager, and broadcast journalist, before taking up a professorship at Bombay University.
9. In time he would come to define Bombay as much as the city would define him. It is a looming presence in his poems, a kind of purgatory, or a far circle of hell. He wrote about it without resorting to easy sentimentality, and he sometimes evoked the tormented images of Baudelaire and Dante. From 'A Morning Walk':
Barbaric city sick with slums,
Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains,
Its hawkers, beggars, iron-lunged,
Processions led by frantic drums,
A million purgatorial lanes,
and child-like masses, many-tongued
whose wages are in words and crumbs.
10. If his attitude to Bombay, and to India, was ambivalent, there were also lines that could easily be parodied. He wrote as if he were making fun of himself, of his marginality and outsider status, as in the two concluding lines from this section of 'In India':
Always, in the sun's eye,
Here among the beggars,
Hawkers, pavement sleepers,
Hutment dwellers, slums,
Dead souls of men and gods,
Burnt-out mothers, frightened
Virgins, wasted child
And tortured animal,
All in noisy silence
Suffering the place and time.
I ride my elephant of thought,
A Cezanne slung around my neck.
11. In 1964, V S Naipaul's An Area of Darkness (Andre Deutsch, 1964) appeared to unanimous outrage in India. The book's critics said Naipaul had focused on India's poverty, bureaucracy and lack of hygiene to the exclusion of everything else. Naipaul was obsessed by defecation, said his critics. He was hysterical. The poet Ezekiel became a beacon of sanity in the
contentious debate that ensued. His essay, 'Naipaul's India and Mine' was published the following year:
'In the India which I have presumed to call mine, I acknowledge without hesitation the existence of all the darkness Mr Naipaul has 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... I am incurably critical and sceptical. That is what I am in relation to India also. And to myself. I find it does not prevent the growth of love. In this sense only, I love India. I expect nothing in return because critical, sceptical love does not beget love. It performs another, more objective function.'
12. The poet Ezekiel's connection with India was an abiding subject of his verse. His quarrel with Naipaul, he said, arose because 'Mr Naipaul is so often uninvolved and unconcerned.' Not everybody had Naipaul's choice. For most people, he said, escape was not from the community but into it. A dozen years later, the subject would come up again. Again, from 'Background, Casually':
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.
13. That day in the restaurant, he asked me why I was leaving India. I replied that I wished to learn how to be a better writer. And I think I made a reference to "this backward place." He stopped eating and for a moment the years dropped from his eyes: they were utterly lucid and clear. "You don't have to go away to learn to write better," he said. "But it may help."
14. Ezekiel was a role model for many writers: not only did he write knowledgeably about art, literature, and theater, he had held jobs in journalism and advertising. I asked him how he moved between poetry and prose with such apparent ease. I wanted to know how he managed to protect his poetry although he wrote so much prose -- on deadline, to make a living.
His reply was simplicity itself. He never worked very hard on prose, he said, he just let it write itself. Of course reading some of his art criticism and essays, this is difficult to believe: they are as well-crafted as his poems. Then he said the words I took with me from that afternoon, words I carry with me still. "I only ever worked hard on a poem," he said.
Senior Writer Jeet Thayil is the author of English (Penguin, 2004)
Design: Lynette Menezes