On January 10, one of the first mornings of a new year, The Times of India told me that Nissim Ezekiel was dead. He had survived nearly 80 mostly tranquil years. But in the last few of them he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. It was a savage way for him to die, for he had always treasured the real world, and for the last few years his illness took it away from him. I did not see him often in these years. The last few times we met, he knew my face but could not place me. I had known Nissim, when he died, for more than half a century.
At our first encounter, in 1952 or 1953 I think, I was 14 or 15, and he had recently come back from England. The Fortune Press had produced his first book of verse, A Time to Change. I read it. By then I had started to read and write poetry, and with less fervour, short stories. Nissim had become the assistant editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India. The editor was Shaun Mandy, who was irascible and Irish, possessed of a good heart but no critical sense. Nissim told me once that Mandy was "a barbaric man". But he was then also about the only editor in India who published poetry and fiction in a serious way.
I sent my short stories to Mandy. He passed them on to Nissim, who seemed to like them. Anyway, he published the two or three I had produced. I wasn't really much interested in writing fiction, and soon stopped. But I then sent Nissim some poems. He suggested that we should meet. When we did, I think he was astonished to encounter a schoolboy in shorts, but very diffidently offered me a cigarette. I felt grateful. He was the first adult to do this, though I smoked at school.
He was then, perhaps, not quite 30, very thin and pale, with spectacles, and long, delicate hands. He had a warm nature that he tried hard to suppress. The result was that he seemed rather prim and clerk-like in his ways. He spoke in the meditative tones of a much older man. He always clutched a bundle of English magazines, or of books, under his arm. My personal acquaintance of other writers was scanty then. I had met the novelist Mulk Raj Anand, a friend of my father's, and also, briefly, G.V. Desani, but Nissim was the first poet I had ever encountered, and he did not fit my mental picture of a poet.
But the poetry he wrote at that time was perhaps the best he ever wrote. It was mostly unambitious in its scope and technique, but his tight rhymed quatrains often worked very well and displayed a wry, dryly mischievous sense of humour and an eye that was observant and sympathetic at once. Some of his poems expressed a strong sexuality that I couldn't really connect with the person I knew. Occasionally he would show me his new poems. I read them with uncritical awe.
Awe was not particularly evident in his reaction to my work. He told me more than once that I should stop writing poetry and continue to try short stories instead. In later years Nissim denied that he had ever said this. But I was an adolescent then, and I clearly remember how suicidal his remark made me feel. But he also suggested I should read criticism, and particularly that of Pound and Walter Bagehot. More dissimilar critics can hardly be imagined, but his suggestion was very useful. Nissim guided my reading habits at that time, except that he disapproved with acerbic contempt my fondness for crime fiction.
I knew that several other young poets showed him their work. He mentioned Kersey Katrak and Adil Jussawalla, neither of whom I met until some years later. I often think now that he should have introduced us to one another. There were very few people in Bombay with whom one could talk about poetry. Indeed, Nissim was the only person I knew with whom this was possible. I don't think the situation has changed very radically since then.Nissim was very important in this way: he gave young poets the feeling that they were not alone.
I left Bombay for England in 1954, when I was 16. Ten years later Nissim came to Leeds University for some months on some kind of fellowship. I used to meet him when he came to London. I tried to introduce him to other poets and to publishers. This wasn't a success. None of the publishers we approached liked his poems. Some poets felt rebuffed by him, because he disapproved of their habits, such as drinking in pubs. "Why can't they drink coffee?" he would ask me. The primness I noticed in him earlier intensified in a strange milieu.
But he was a very good man. Though he could be acerbic in his wit, he possessed a true and pure quality of innocence. I think this is what I most admired in him, and why he leaves so many friends to mourn him. He belonged to Bombay, the Bombay that existed before it was renamed. When I was a boy we used to meet at the Naaz cafe on a rooftop in Cumballa Hill. He would look beyond the chairs and tables to the open sea, a cigarette in his long fingers, and smile his kindly smile, contented with this time and this place. He had the gift, given only to a few people, of being happy with small and humble things.
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