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Nissim Ezekiel: A Poet of Wrestling Identities

Ezekiel’s pride in his Jewish and Indian heritage was juxtaposed with a deep sense of alienation from both, creating inner turmoil. Frequently, he grappled with
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The weight of a complex identity, the insecurity stemming from a quest for belonging, and an ardent longing to fit in are some of the defining characteristics I discern in the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel. As an Indian Jew, Ezekiel faced the daunting task of reconciling his dual identities. Wrestling with a persistent sense of being an outsider in both realms, he earnestly attempted to bridge the gap but found himself entangled in an unending quest for acceptance. The constant apprehension of being in insufficient sync with his Jewish as well as his Indian heritage left him feeling like a perpetual outsider yearning for the comfort of belonging.
With a lineage stretching back two millennia in India, Nissim Ezekiel (1924–2004) can boast of a heritage that undeniably qualifies him as an authentic Indian. Born into a Jewish family that spoke both English and Marathi and was associated with the Bene Israelite community that is believed to have established its roots in India over two thousand years ago, Ezekiel’s ancestral origins can be traced back to a community of Jews from Judah (Palestine).

The migration of this Jewish community to India is believed to have taken place either during the persecution of Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 BCE or in the aftermath of the Roman siege of Jerusalem that resulted in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews in 70 CE.

Young Nissim Ezekiel with his parents and siblings

Legend traces the journey of the Bene Israelites to the Konkan coast, recounting their survival from a shipwreck, their eventual settlement in Konkan villages, and their engagement in oil production, an expertise they brought along with them from Judah, for livelihood. In the nineteenth century, they migrated to places such as Bombay (present-day Mumbai), Pune, Ahmedabad, and Karachi (now in Pakistan) where they found recognition for themselves under the British government.
Over centuries, they have made earnest attempts to blend their distinctive Jewish identity and culture with their Indian identity and customs, resulting in a unique cultural synthesis. However, this blending hasn’t always yielded a satisfactory outcome, as illustrated in Ezekiel’s poem, “Background, Casually.” The narrator in the poem reflects on his community’s collective experience of alienation from the larger Indian society, stating, “My ancestors, among the castes / Were aliens crushing seed for bred.” The Bene Israelite community’s collective consciousness of the fear of rejection by their fellow Indians is strikingly evident in these lines.

Growing up as a Jewish boy in a multi-religious and multi-cultural environment in Bombay exposed Ezekiel to the unsettling reality of being viewed as an outsider, the unwelcome “other.” Hence, under the guise of his narrator in “Background, Casually,” he recounts that during his school years, he perceived himself as “A mugging Jew among the wolves.” The narrator goes on to reflect on the distressing instances of bullying he faced for being a Jew, recounting how boys from Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious backgrounds targeted him at the Catholic school he attended during his youth.
From an early age, Ezekiel became deeply conscious of the challenges of integrating his Jewish identity into the fabric of Indian society. This recognition ignited his desire to articulate his Indianness, a sentiment he wrote about on many occasions. The following four lines from his Poster Poems, depict his consciousness of his Indianness.

I’ve never been a refugee
except of the spirit,
a loved and troubled country
which is my home and enemy.

Similarly, in his 1965 essay, “Naipaul’s India and Mine,” Ezekiel delves into his relationship with India further, stating, “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 … India is simply my environment. A man can do something for and in his environment by being fully what he is, by not withdrawing from it. I have not withdrawn from India.”

Nissim Ezekiel's handwritten manuscript

Because of the pervasive misconception that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, Jewish communities worldwide have often been subjected to criticism, contempt, violence, ostracism, and alienation from mainstream society. Ezekiel, too, experienced the bitter taste of this prejudice in its Indian manifestation, right from his school days through his peers. His poetic narrator in “Background, Casually,” vividly recounts this painful experience, lamenting, “They told me I had killed Christ.” On account of his Jewish identity, the Christian, Hindu, and Muslim boys in his school bullied him. Despite everything, the poetic narrator asserts his love for and commitment to his country emphatically in the concluding part of the poem:

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.

These lines are a powerful statement of defiance and resilience. In the guise of the narrator, Ezekiel refuses to be driven away from his home and country because of the prejudice he faces. Therefore, he declares that his place is where he is and that he will not be intimidated or forced to leave his country.

With the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late nineteenth century, Jews worldwide, including the Bene Israelites (especially after Indian independence in 1947), began migrating to Israel—the envisioned homeland of the Jewish people. The Zionist movement viewed this mass migration as an ‘ingathering of exiles,’ aiming to bring an end to the exoduses, persecutions, and alienations that marked Jewish history. However, despite these global shifts, the Ezekiel family opted to remain in India, their homeland for over two millennia. The external pressures urging departure and the internal resolve to stay must have posed a profound dilemma for the Ezekiels. Both this tension and its resolution are poignantly expressed in the following lines in “The Egotist’s Prayers:”

Confiscate my passport, Lord
I don’t want to go abroad
Let me find my song
Where I belong.

Ezekiel’s pride in his Jewish and Indian heritage was juxtaposed with a deep sense of alienation from both, creating an inner turmoil. Frequently, he grappled with the feeling of not truly belonging to either world. The consistent emphasis on his Indian identity and belonging to the country may perhaps be indicative of his own uncertainty about both aspects. These assertions could be interpreted as a personal endeavor to convince himself of his place in India, despite a prevailing sense of alienation from its society. It is also possible that these affirmations served as a strategic response to combat the prejudice and discrimination he encountered, a way of persuading others of his authentic Indian identity. It is unfortunate that people have to prove their love and loyalty to their country.

Nissim Ezekiel at an art exhbition in Bombay in 1954

His poem, “Enterprise,” depicts a feisty spiritual journey of a group of pilgrims that culminates in utter disillusionment. The concluding observations of the narrator who is a member of the group encapsulate the disillusionment when he says:

When finally, we reached the place
We hardly knew why were there
The trip had darkened every face
Our deeds were neither great nor rare.

These lines also highlight the futility of looking for fulfillment outside oneself. Interestingly, the last line of the poem, “Home is where we have to earn our grace,” is an affirmation that the effort to escape from the reality of life is utterly futile. At an allegorical level, the poem depicts the human quest for peace, contentment, meaning, identity, and self-discovery. It is also a quest to discover one’s place in the world. It is the acceptance of home and not the avoidance of it that actualizes the quest. In spite of his love-hate relationship with India, by means of the poem, Ezekiel convinces himself of the importance of accepting India as his home.

Through the crucible of poetry, Ezekiel transformed his personal struggles into a poignant testament to the intricate complexities of his Indian and Jewish identities and his unwavering commitment to his homeland. His poetry serves as a beacon of the transformative power of art. Wielding the power of poetry to transcend the personal realm, he became a voice for his generation and captured the zeitgeist of postcolonial India. To a large extent, his poems seem to resonate deeply with the struggles and aspirations of a nation grappling with its identity, its place in the world, and its pursuit of a more just and equitable society.

Young Nissim with his mother Diana

Deeply personal, intensely introspective, and firmly anchored in his Indian identity, Ezekiel’s poems explore a wide range of themes such as belonging, love, loss, alienation, justice, humanity, religion, politics, economics, and more, all set against the backdrop of the emerging postcolonial modern India with all its triumphs and tribulations. Through poetry, he seems to have found a way not only to navigate the complexities of his dual identity as an Indian and a Jew but also to grapple with the social and political upheavals of postcolonial India.

In his 1941 essay, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Wallace Stevens argues that when poets face the pressure and violence of reality they draw on their own poetic power to return pressure by means of their creative expressions. Poetry, he says is “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

Ezekiel's pride in his Jewish and Indian heritage was juxtaposed with a deep sense of alienation from both, creating inner turmoil. Frequently, he grappled with the feeling of not truly belonging to either world. The consistent emphasis on his Indian identity and belonging to the country may perhaps be indicative of his own uncertainty about both aspects. These assertions could be interpreted as a personal endeavor to convince himself of his place in India, despite a prevailing sense of alienation from its society.

For Stevens, poetry was definitely therapeutic as well as cathartic. It was the same for Ezekiel. “Scores of my poems,” says Ezekiel, “are obviously written for personal therapeutic purpose.” Pouring his heart and soul into his writing, Ezekiel seems to have engaged in dialogue with himself, allowing his subconscious mind to surface and be heard. This process seems to have been incredibly liberating, as it appears to have helped him to confront and accept some of his deepest fears and insecurities.

Born on 16 December 1924 in Mumbai, 2024 marks the centenary of Ezekiel’s birth. As a poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic, and editor, his contributions to Indian literature have been immense and enduring, leaving an indelible mark on the literary landscape of India and its diaspora. The Sahitya Academy Award, the highest literary honor in India, bestowed upon him in 1983 for his poetry collection, “Latter-Day Psalms,” is a testament to his literary greatness. Additionally, the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, awarded to him in 1988, reflects the high esteem in which he is held by the Indian government and the nation as a whole.

As we commemorate the centenary of Nissim Ezekiel’s birth, we fondly recall his invaluable contributions to Indian literature and extend our heartfelt wishes for a joyous celebration marking his hundredth birthday.

Sacaria Joseph is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Having pursued his undergraduate studies at St. Xavier’s College, he furthered his academic journey by obtaining a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Pune University, a Master of Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a PhD from Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal. In addition to his academic pursuits, he writes on a wide array of subjects encompassing literature, philosophy, religion, culture, cinema, politics, and the environment.

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