Nissim Ezekiel is an Indian poet who is famous for writing his poetry in English. He had a long career spanning more than forty years, during which he drastically influenced the literary scene in India. Many scholars see his first collection of poetry, A Time to Change, published when he was only 28 years old, as a turning point in postcolonial Indian literature towards modernism.
Ezekiel was born in 1924 in Bombay to a Jewish family. They were part of Mumbai’s Marathi-speaking Jewish community known as Bene Israel. His father taught botany at Wilson College, and his mother was the principal of a school. Ezekiel graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1947. In 1948, he moved to England and studied philosophy in London. He stayed for three and a half years until working his way home on a ship.
Upon his return, he quickly joined the literary scene in India. He became an assistant editor for Illustrated Weekly in 1953. He founded a monthly literary magazine, Imprint, in 1961. He became an art critic for the Times of India. He also edited Poetry India from 1966-1967. Throughout his career, he published poetry and some plays. He was professor of English and a reader in American literature at Bombay University in the 1990s, and secretary of the Indian branch of the international writer’s organization, PEN. Ezekiel was also a mentor for the next generation of poets, including Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla and Gieve Patel. Ezekiel received the Sahitya Akademi cultural award in 1983. He also received the Padma-Shri, India’s highest honor for civilians, in 1988.
Ezekiel died in 2004 after a long battle against Alzheimer’s Disease. At the time of his death, he was considered the most famous and influential Indian poet who wrote in English.
Despite the fact that he wrote in English, Ezekiel’s poems primarily examine themes associated with daily life in India. Through his career, his poems become more and more situated in India until they can be nothing else but Indian. Ezekiel has been criticized in the past as not being authentically Indian on account of his Jewish background and urban outlook. Ezekiel himself writes about this in a 1976 essay entitled “Naipaul’s India and Mine,” in which he disagrees with another poet, V.S. Naipaul, about the critical voice with which he writes about India. “While I am not a Hindu and my background makes me a natural outsider,” Ezekiel writes, “circumstances and decisions relate me to India. In other countries I am a foreigner. In India I am an Indian. When I was eighteen, a friend asked me what my ambition was. I said with the naive modesty of youth, ‘To do something for India.'” We can see this attitude at work in Ezekiel’s poetry—even when his poems are satirical, they come from the voice of a loving insider rather than someone who is looking from the outside. In this way, Ezekiel’s poems are quintessentially Indian because they exist there. Ezekiel writes, “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.”
The critic Vinay Lal argued in 1991 that it is not surprising that a poet like Ezekiel brought about so much literary change in India: “It is perhaps no accident either that the first blossoms of the birth and growth of modern Indian poetry in English should have come from the pen of a poet who, while very much an Indian, belongs to a community that in India was very small to begin with, and has in recent years become almost negligible, a veritable drop in the vast ocean of the Indian population.”
You can read Nissim Ezekiel ’s poetry here