Vol. 4 Num 237 Sat. January 24, 2004  

Nissim Ezekiel: 'you missed out a comma in the fourth line’

Sometimes, in the chaos of too many deadlines and responsibilities, you stop a while and think "I must meet this person who has been so important to me". Then the daily madness takes over --the meals to be cooked, newspapers to be sent to press, the child's homework-- and you tell yourself that one of these days you will-- you must-- make the time.

Last October, another poet friend and I decided to visit Nissim Ezekiel in the nursing home where he had been for more than six years. A young relative of his, a photographer, wanted to join us, to take pictures of the great poet for posterity. That visit never happened, and now, it never will.

I tell myself that Nissim would not have recognized us, anyway. He would have been his usual warm and welcoming self, but asked us, though we had met a hundred times, who we were. He had been a victim of the debilitating Alzheimer's disease for years; his memory had begun failing him much before he was admitted into the nursing home.

The Nissim I knew, when I was 16, and he was 55, was a very different man. He was India's best-known Indian English poet, and the first to try and break the mould. In school, we had studied his poem, Night of the Scorpion, and when word came that this "real live poet" would actually be doing a reading and that there would be room for 20 of us, our class of 15-year-olds was thrilled. Everyone wanted to attend the reading, even those who did not care much for poetry. We had to draw lots, and I, perhaps the keenest of them all, lost out. At 15, it was a trauma that I found difficult to handle.

A year later, straight out of school, I met Patanjali Sethi, then training officer of The Times of India. He read my poems and gave me an introductory letter for Nissim. Clutching that letter, and with my poems written out in my best schoolgirl handwriting, I went to see Nissim at Bombay University. I was convinced he would tell me this was great and profound poetry, full of pain and longing, and all the philosophy that only a 16-year-old can spout. He read the note, then glanced at the works of genius I had handed him, tossed them back across his vast table and said: "Type them. You can't evaluate a poem if it is hand-written."

I was shattered. Surely this was his way of telling me not to waste his time! I mumbled that I would come back again, and made my way out, vowing never to return. "Write down your name and phone number before you go," he called out just as I got to the door. I did as he asked, and left. Over the next two weeks, I struggled with a battered typewriter that was older than I was, painfully typed out my poems, and decided I would never see Nissim again.

Two weeks later, the phone rang. "You were going to come back with your poems, weren't you?" asked the voice at the other end.

When we met the next day, he read my poems (so perfect they were with all the derived rhymes and rhythms of Wordsworth and Shelley!) and said: "They're okay." This was a refrain I was to hear every week for the next six months, whenever I showed Nissim a new poem. Then one day, seeing the crushed expression on my face, he said: "Look, for your age, you are very good. But if you get it into your head that there is nothing more to learn, you will be finished." Then he told me of poets he had known who had started out well, but were still writing at age sixty exactly the way they were when they were sixteen. "No matter what level you are at," he said, "you should always go a little higher." It was a lesson that I learned for life.

Another time, when I wrote a grand poem about unrequited love, he looked at it, smiled and said, "You missed out a comma in the fourth line." Is this man nuts or what, I thought to myself, and said indifferently, "Really? That's just too bad." I put it in anyway, and wondered why I was wasting my time.

This was a frequent criticism-- a comma here, a full stop there, a colon where I had put in a semi-colon instead ... "What's all this got to do with the real thing?" I asked him once in frustration, and he said: "This is the age when you perfect the craft, so it becomes an automatic part of your writing. When you're 17, you have a lot of time to think about the great philosophies of poetry. First, get the grammar right."

In time, and largely thanks to his approach, I learned to look at my work just as critically as he did. In fact, I began to get so self-critical, I often tore up what I wrote. "Don't be so harsh on yourself," he said. "You have some really good work there."

Once, I told him about a poem that just wasn't happening right, no matter what I did with it. "I've reworked it four times!" I yelled. "Is that all?" he responded. "There are poems I have rewritten more than ten times and I still wasn't happy with them."

If Nissim criticized your work, he was equally open to criticism of his own. "I've written some new poems," he told me one morning, "but I don't think I should show them to you." It was the series, Nudes, and he was convinced I would be scandalised. At 17, and very much-- at least in my own opinion-- a woman of the world, I told him that nothing shocked me. So he showed me the poems and waited quietly for my reaction. Some of the more explicit lines did, indeed, shock me, but naturally I was not going to say that! "You've missed out a comma in line five of the first poem," I told him, and he laughed. "You've learned my lessons too well, you so-and-so!" he declared.

Another time, he handed me a proof of Night of the Scorpion the very same, much anthologized poem that I had learned in school. "Help me with this," he said. "Some magazine wants to publish it but I can't stand the sight of this poem now." Nissim had moved on, but as all poets know as they evolve, their poems will always be frozen in time and critics will ask pointless questions or give meaningless praise long after the poet has travelled into different lives.

After eight years of frequent discussions, he asked me why I wasn't coming out with a book. When I told him I did not think I was ready yet, he was astonished. "Young people write poetry for two years and think they are ready," he said. I told him that with poetry I could take my time, and he cautioned me against taking too much. When, two years later, I finally told him I was ready for a book, he was delighted, and helped me to put the manuscript together.

Helping a young poet came naturally to Nissim, and many people took this for granted, including a pimply-faced boy who once barged into his office and shouted: "You haven't read my poems yet? But I gave them to you a month ago!" Far from throwing him out, or at least rebuking him, Nissim looked embarrassed, and mumbled an apology.

When we started the Poetry Circle in Mumbai in 1986 for young poets, he immediately offered whatever assistance he could both in terms of providing feedback to the often halting, flaccid poems people brought, and in a more concrete sense. We needed a permanent venue so that people knew where to go every second and fourth Saturday, even if no circulars about the meeting reached them. The P.E.N. office, over which he had presided for years, became our home. It was here that we had met during all those long years of struggling with poetry, and what better meeting ground could there have been? Ten years after we first began holding Poetry Circle meetings here, Nissim's presence became much less frequent, and he himself was much quieter. When he finally stopped coming, through no choice of his own, the P.E.N. office seemed an empty place, full of dusty books on dustier shelves and a vacuum that would be impossible to fill. Already, there is talk of closing down the P.E.N. office; after all, why should a literary body take up so much prime real estate!

Once, in this very same room, I had told him I wanted to do a Ph.D. "A Ph.D? Don't be silly!" said this man who had once taught my M.A. English Literature class. Then, over the next three hours, he brought up the topic every time someone entered the room at the rate of once every 15 minutes, since this was like headquarters for young poets and academics. "Ha, ha, ha, this girl wants to do a Ph.D," he told each visitor. Finally, when he noticed my annoyed expression, he pointed to the dusty tomes. "See that thick volume on that cupboard?" he asked me. "That's a Ph.D thesis that somebody has given me to read after spending ten years on it. If you do a Ph.D., you will get so bogged down with research, it will kill your creativity. What you should be doing instead is writing good poetry. Just continue to write good poetry."

These are words I frequently remember, as the daily dramas and deadlines close in. There is so much that we get caught into, so many flurried and fleeting tasks. What survives in the end are the words on the page, the spirit that brings them alive.

Even memory, as we learned the hard way watching Nissim, is a cruel and temporary thing. My first inkling that something was very wrong came one evening, soon after Nissim turned seventy. I had offered him a ride home from the P.E.N. office; he was otherwise accustomed to the five-minute walk to Churchgate station and then a train, often stopping to buy vegetables on the way.

As we approached his home, I asked him where it was exactly so the driver could take the correct turn. Nissim could not remember. I asked him the name of the street on which he lived so we could ask for directions. Nissim, who had lived in that home almost his entire life, had no idea. After driving around a busy street at peak hours several times, I had no choice but to drop him at the railway station that he was so familiar with. It was his own suggestion because through sheer habit, his legs would take him along the exact route that he had walked for so many decades even if he had no clue what his destination was. He thanked me profusely for the ride, and when I told him it was nothing compared to what he had done for me, he insisted he had done very little.

Then one terrible morning, an agitated Adil Jussawalla, (another leading Indian English poet), called to say that Nissim was in hospital. "He's finished," Adil said.

I visited Nissim a few days later, and he could still recognize me. Sharing the room with a few other patients, he was sitting up in his bed with nothing more than a tumbler of water by his side and a small plastic bag on the bed. I got him a writing pad and pen--surely the Muse was still with him-- and some orange juice. He put the notepad aside but grabbed the juice in delight.

A few years later, he was still confined, only now it was a nursing home. Some of us went to see him, shortly after the launch of a festschrift in his honour, edited by Vrinda Nabar and Nilufer Bharucha. Nissim had not been allowed to attend the function, and did not recognize us, but was thrilled to see a cake that we had brought him, refusing to share it with anyone else.

It was the last time I ever saw him. Perhaps I was not strong enough to handle it, but this was not the Nissim I knew, and I wanted to remember the Nissim who had made such a difference to my life and to my poetry.

In 1988, when he won the Padma Shri, I had written him a congratulatory note, adding with tongue firmly in cheek, "I did not know I was hobnobbing with greatness."

"The next time you see greatness," Nissim drily responded, "try to recognise it."

The tragedy is that most of us can only do so when it is much too late.

Menka Shivdasani is a founder-member of the Bombay Poetry Circle. She has published two books of poems, Nirvana at Ten Rupees (1990) and Stet (2003).

A Bombay Poetry Circle meet in 1996. Menka Shivdasani at the back sitting beside Nissim Ezekiel.