The conventional wisdom, or at least the presumed wisdom of existing critical overviews on the topic, is that when he died in 2004 after a losing battle against Alzheimer’s Disease, Nissim Ezekiel was the most famous Indian poet who ever composed in the English language. The poet had been surrounded by those who spoke English from his childhood as a young Jewish boy in Bombay; his immersion in the language continued through a position teaching English literature in his native India and a move to England to study philosophy.
Despite his mastery of English, Ezekiel’s poems primary examine themes associated with daily life in India. That daily life is portrayed through a lens of irony, in which estrangement from those around him is sometimes punctuated with a sense of arrogance and sometimes with a sense of longing to belong. Showing a marked preference for free verse, his poetry adopts a conversational tone, but a precise style that never adopts the undisciplined structure of some confessional poems.
Ezekiel published his first collection, A Time to Change and Other Poems, in 1952. He issued another eight volumes before the insidious influence of Alzheimer’s drew his career to a premature end well before his death.