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Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher - Nissim Ezekiel

What a sense of wonder it must have been for the Bombay poets to be writing at the cusp of independence; setting the boundaries of a collective imagination unleashed in a new language - a language that is not their own, nor their coloniser’s. The dilemma of an Indian writer writing in English is everpresent in the work of the “Bombay Poets”. Nissim Ezekiel was one of the early innovators, the ‘modernist’ who made Shakespeare and the sonneteers his own, recast their gaze with a native chuckle, with the smell of wet earth and cow dung not too far from his empathetic, yet ironic, portraits. I share his Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher today, to commerate Salim Ali’s Birthday.


If you are, or have ever been, a child with a personal library in India, chances are that there is a dusty copy of Ali’s popular work The Book of Indian Birds, somewhere, lying around the house. Among many achievements and extensive, path-breaking research in ornithology, Ali was the first to conduct systematic surveys of Indian birds across different geographies. His copious notebooks betray the profound sense of patience and observation that he nurtured, a focus that is essential to the careful study of most things.


Nissim riffs on this almost supernatural concentration that drives the birdwatcher, the poet and the lover. Seamlessly flitting various roles, his pursuit of beauty and epiphany, doesn’t seem put on or self indulgent. With loving detail and playful rhymes he paints portraits of the fervent search for meaning, and yet, at the end preserves a sense of mystery in the artistic practice, and in lovemaking.

What I particularly like in this piece is the slowing down, the gentleness with which his words draw us into a comfortable yet alert pace. I see this as a direct contrast to the demands of modern life, and the vagaries of the everyday. Ezekiel knew it, and there is a subtext of slowness in his words, a lovable, gentle slowness. It is not often that slowness is seen as a positive thing and I am happy to have encountered this piece of writing as a young poet.


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