Nissim Ezekiel was an Indian poet who brought a unique voice to his literary contributions. Born in Bombay, India, on December 24, 1924, he was educated in both India (University of Bombay – now University of Mumbai) and England (Birkbeck College, London). He returned to India shortly after the country achieved independence  (1947) and chose to write in English rather than in an Indian language. Ezekiel’s most unique attribute, however, was that he was a member of one of India’s ancient Jewish communities, the Bene Israel.

Whereas many of the Bene Israel lived in their traditional villages, the Ezekiels were middle class city folk. His fat her was a botony professor, his mother a school principal. Ezekiel grew up speaking the Bene Israel language, Marathi, but the family was not particularly traditional. Nevertheless, Ezekiel referred to his Jewish heritage in several of his poems. For instance, he noted, “my ancestors, among the castes/were aliens crushing seed for bread,” in his poems “Background, Casually.” Another of his poems is titled, “Jewish Wedding in Bombay.”

Ezekiel’s first book of poetry, Time to Change, was published in London in 1952. Publishing poetry, however, is not particularly lucrative. In order to return home to India, Ezekiel worked as a deck-scrubber on a cargo ship carrying arms to Indochina. In India, he continued to write and publish poetry, but also held a series of other literary positions, such as art-critic for the Times of India, and taught at several foreign universities. Ezekiel received the Sahitya Akademi Cultural Award in 1983 and the Padma-shri, India’s highest civilian honor, in 1988.

Nissim Ezekiel passed away on January 9, 2004.

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