Epitome of the sophisticated urban poet

TIME PRESENT and time past

By Pratibha Umashankar

Published: Tue 13 Jan 2004, 1:02 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:19 AM

Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

I can still hear the old stone walls of Bombay University echoing the measured tones of Nissim Ezekiel's voice as he read out T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. He read us poems in a mild, unaffected manner. He didn't believe in imposing his own emotions on a poem.

As one who was taught by him, albeit many years ago, I was deeply saddened by the news of Ezekiel's death. Cliched as it might sound, his death marks the end of an era. It marks the end of an eminent Indo-Anglian poet's life. It is the end of all that he stood for and all that his poetry implied.

Ezekiel was a cogent critic, a dedicated teacher and, above all, a symbol of the times he portrayed through his writings. He shaped modern Indo-Anglian poetry as much as he was shaped by it. His was the voice of the sophisticated urban poet. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he carried no colonial baggage, however. Indeed, he strenuously shunned it. His was a new voice - that of the cosmopolitan man, aware of anxieties that were less dramatic, but reflected the turbulent times he lived in. The touch of satire, the self-effacing manner said it all.

He taught us Eliot, Pablo Neruda and James Joyce and he taught them well. He never attempted to be an 'inspiring' teacher but he was an inspiring poet all the same.

Starting with his first book of poems, A Time to Change, published in 1952, Ezekiel dominated the Mumbai poetry scene even as he wore several other hats - professor in American and English Literature at Bombay University, visiting professor at Leeds University in 1964, invitee of the US government under its International Visitors Programme, Cultural Award Visitor to Australia, director of Theatre Unit, Mumbai, translator, art critic, the guiding force of the Poetry Circle and, not least, editor of the journal, PEN.

Ezekiel would often quote from Burnt Norton (T.S. Eliot), "Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish." But he was a stickler for discipline when it came to his own words. No typical absent-minded professor or poet who lived in his own world, he expected students to keep their deadlines and didn't miss classes because of other assignments that made demands on his time. On the one hand, he could put a budding, overenthusiastic poet in his place with a wry remark; on the other hand, he was always there when his guidance was sought.

It was a rainy evening several years ago when I went to meet him at the Theosophy Society in Mumbai where he edited PEN. But his office was closed. He had not been a regular visitor of late due to ill-health, I was told. What I didn't know then was that Ezekiel was showing early symptoms of Alzheimer's, that debilitating disease of the brain.

Later I read and heard different accounts of his failing memory, that he roamed the streets of the big city like a lost soul. In a way death came as a relief. After all, Nissim Ezekiel had led a full life. He courted controversy and often met it half-way. He was a legend of sorts in his own lifetime and his work was recognised and appreciated. He received a number of awards including the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983 and the Padma Shri in 1988.

Today, as I remember him fondly, I recall the lines from his poem,


It started as a pilgrimage ...

It ends with

When, finally we reached the place,
We hardly knew why we were there.
The trip had darkened every face,
Our deeds were neither great nor rare.
Home is where we have to gather grace.

I always felt the last line echoed his sentiments rather aptly. He wandered in search of adventure but got back to his roots to gather grace.

In recent years Indo-Anglian poetry has lost much of its vibrancy. Ezekiel's passing is bound to dim the lights further. As for me, I have lost one more great teacher, a tribe that seems to be rapidly vanishing.

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