About 20 years ago, when city-based professor and author R Raj Rao had embarked upon writing the authorised biography of the late Indian-Jewish poet, playwright and art critic Nissim Ezekiel, he wasn’t aware of the challenges that lay ahead. While the first challenge was facing opposition from Nissim’s family, the second was Ezekiel’s Alzheimer’s which had led to memory loss.
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However, Rao succeeded in completing the book, which was first launched 16 years ago in 2000. Now, on Ezekiel’s 92nd birth anniversary, a revised and updated paperback edition of the original hardcover book will be released on December 16 at the ICSSR Conference Hall, University of Mumbai, where Ezekiel had taught till he retired in 1984.
A Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi awardee, Ezekiel’s works include Latter-Day Psalms, The Discovery of India, The Third, The Unfinished Man, The Exact Name, and Hymns in Darkness.
Talking about the second edition, Rao said, “The original book that came out while Nissim was still alive, although hospitalised, is now out of print. The second one briefly refers to his friends’ visits to the hospital and his death in 2004. Some errors in the book — like dates and names — have also been corrected now.”
Recollecting his challenges, Rao said, “His family members did not want speak to me, except for his sister-in-law (late) Khorshed Ezekiel who gave me a detailed interview. I also managed to interview many of his friends in Mumbai.”
Describing Ezekiel as a teacher, a poet and a friend, Rao said he was one of his most inspiring teachers, one who genuinely educated him. Ezekiel, Rao said, knew how to teach. “I learnt the need for rhythm and economy in a poetic line from him. But I was critical of the moralising stance he had assumed in many of his poems, which made them preachy. As for befriending him, that really happened in the last ten years or so of his life, when I started working on his biography. And he proved to be a good friend, entirely supportive of the ambitious task I had undertaken,” said Rao.
In the context of English poetry, Rao feels that Ezekiel was one of the first modernist poets, who had introduced a new style in his verse. He influenced and nurtured a whole generation of poets who came after him, like Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla and Gieve Patel, and later of younger poets like Ranjit Hoskote and Menka Shivdasani.
“The critic, Bruce King, referred to him as the founder of a school of modern Indian poetry, known as the Bombay School. Historically, Nissim Ezekiel is of great relevance today,” Rao said.