Nissim Ezekiel (14 December 1924 – 9 January 2004) was a poet, playwright, editor and art critic. He was a foundational figure in postcolonial India’s literary history, specifically for Indian writing in English.
Ezekiel was born on 14 December 1924 in Mumbai (Maharashtra). His father, Moses Ezekiel, was a professor of botany at Wilson College, and his mother was principal of her own school. The Ezekiels belonged to Mumbai’s Jewish community, known as the ‘Bene Israel‘ . In 1947, Ezekiel earned an MA in Literature from Wilson College, University of Mumbai. In 1947-48, he taught English literature and published literary articles. After dabbling in radical politics for a while, he sailed to London in November 1948. He studied philosophy at Birk beck College. After a three and a half years stay, Ezekiel worked his way home as a deck-scrubber aboard a ship carrying arms to Indochina.
He married Daisy Jacob in 1952. In the same year, Fortune Press (London) published his first collection of poetry, A Time to Change. He joined The Illustrated Weekly of India as an assistant editor in 1953 and stayed there for two years. Soon after his return from London, he published his second book of verse Sixty Poems. For the next 10 years, he also worked as a broadcaster on arts and literature for All India Radio.
Ezekiel’s first book, A Time to Change, appeared in 1952. He published another volume of poems, The Unfinished Man in 1960. After working as an advertising copywriter and general manager of a picture frame company (1954-59), he co-founded the literary monthly Imprint, in 1961. He became art critic of The Times of India (1964-66) and edited Poetry India (1966-67). From 1961 to 1972, he headed the English department of Mithibai College, Mumbai. The Exact Name, his fifth book of poetry was published in 1965. During this period he held short-term tenure as visiting professor at University of Leeds (1964) and University of Chicago (1967). In 1967, while in America, he experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, probably as a means to expand his writing skills. He finally stopped using them in 1972. In 1969, Writers Workshop, Calcutta published his The Three Plays .A year later, he presented an art series of ten programs for Mumbai television.
On the invitation of the US government, he embarked on a long tour of the US in November, 1974. In 1976, he translated Indira Sant’s poetry from Marathi, in collaboration with Vrinda Nabar, and co-edited a fiction and poetry anthology. His poem The Night Of The Scorpion is used as study material in Indian and British schools. He wrote a poem based on instruction boards in his favourite Irani café.
Books by Nissim Ezekiel
- 1952: Time To Change
- 1953: Sixty Poems
- 1959: The Third
- 1960: The Unfinished Man
- 1965: The Exact Name
- 1974: Snakeskin and Other Poems, translations of the Marathi poet Indira Sant
- 1976: Hymns in Darkness
- 1982: Latter-Day Psalms
- 1969: The Three Plays
- 1965: An Emerson Reader
- 1969: A Martin Luther King Reader
- 1990: Another India, anthology of fiction and poetry
Some of his well-known poems
- Night of the Scorpion
- The Professor
- Case Study
- Poster Prayers
- The Patriot
- Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher
- Latter-day Psalms
Nissim Ezekiel, who has been called "the father of post-independence Indian verse in English", is the foremost among the Indian-English poets. He is the pioneer of modernity in Indian-English poetry. The Age of Ezekiel in Indian-English poetry started with his creative oeuvre. He was also an art-critic and playwright. In 1952, Fortune press (London) published his first collection of poetry, A Time to Change. He published his book The Unfinished Man in 1960. He co-founded the literary monthly Imprint, in 1961. He functioned as art critic of The Times of India (1964-66) and edited Poetry India (1966-67). From 1961 to 1972, he headed the English Department of Mithibai College, Mumbai. The Exact Name, his fifth book of poetry, was published in 1965. During this period, he had short tenures as visiting professor at University of Leeds (1964) and University of Chicago (1967). In 1969, Writers Workshop, Calcutta published his The Three Plays. A year later, he presented an art series of ten programs for Mumbai television. On the invitation of the US Government, he went on a month-long tour to the US in November, 1974. In 1975 he went as a Cultural Award Visitor to Australia. In 1976, he translated poetry from Marathi, and co-edited a fiction and poetry anthology. Ezekiel received the Sahitya Akademi award in 1983 and the Padma Shri in 1988. He was Professor of English at University of Mumbai during the 1990s. He functioned as the Secretary of the Indian branch of the international writers’ organization PEN. After a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Nissim Ezekiel died in Mumbai, on 9 January 2004. His works include A Time To Change (1952), Sixty Poems (1953), The Third (1959), The Unfinished Man (1960), The Exact Name (1965), The Three Plays (1969) and Hymns in Darkness (1976). When he began his creative course of life in the late 1940s, his adoption of formal English was controversial, given its association with colonialism. Yet he "naturalised the language to the Indian situation, and breathed life into the Indian English poetic tradition." Ezekiel’s poetry describes love, loneliness, lust, creativity and political pomposity, human foibles and the "kindred clamour" of urban dissonance. Over the course of his creative years, his attitude changed, too. The young man, "who shopped around for dreams", demanded truth and lambasted corruption. By the 1970s, he accepted "the ordinariness of most events"; laughed at "lofty expectations totally deflated"; and acknowledged that "The darkness has its secrets / Which light does not know." After 1965, he even began embracing India’s English vernacular, and teased its idiosyncrasies in Poster Poems and in The Professor. He acted as a mentor to many younger poets — Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel and several others. In the last few years of his life, he was deeply involved in helping younger poets, especially those based at Mumbai, his advice being forthright, but seldom blunt.