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The man who waited for images

RANJIT HOSKOTE

Today, he leaves the scribbling pad untouched; he no longer addresses a large audience of listeners, eager to be provoked and entertained by him. He sits alone in a room in a nursing home, instead, tracking the memories that elude him, waiting for the word that never comes, looking at the visitor whose face he seems to recognise but cannot really place ... . This month, poet Nissim Ezekiel turns 77.


Nissim Ezekiel ... still teacher and guide.

THE year closes like a ledger that does not balance, and the things that remain to be done outweigh the brief triumphs of summer and autumn. The mind's circuits jam as the demands multiply, the attention is fragmented beyond restoration, the body gives way to fever, and neither dhyana nor sleep offers any respite. The mind wanders to the hermitage on the mountainside; but the dream vanishes as the deadlines for assignments fall like striped barricades on a dusty road.

It is prose, in one form or another, that the border guards call for; and the pages that have been scrawled over with the fragmentary beginnings of poems seem to recede ever further from sight. The pen hovers above the blank page — or, more often, the cursor above the blank screen — and the high-strung words refuse to appear, paragraphs decline to complete themselves.

At such moments, I think of the poet who was my guru, and wonder how he managed to balance the demands of a life divided almost equally — for five busy decades — among poems, essays, teaching, activism and human relationships. Today, he leaves the scribbling pad untouched; he no longer addresses a large audience of listeners, eager to be provoked and entertained by him. He sits alone in a room in a nursing home, instead, tracking the memories that elude him, waiting for the word that never comes, looking at the visitor whose face he seems to recognise but cannot really place.

The gradual loss of memory, like nectar draining slowly out a sieve, is a harsh enough fate for anybody to endure. But for a writer, whose identity is predicated on his sorcery with words, it is a sentence of exile to lose the thread of evocation that binds word to image; it is the worst of betrayals, this insidious treachery of the neural circuits. Memory, like strategic depth in a military offensive, permits you to move forward without worrying about the logistical support; but when every move you make is one more potentially suicidal step into a minefield, with nothing to fall back upon, your instincts freeze and reason betrays you.

What would it be like, I ask myself, to forget who you are; to watch yourself from the other side of a glass door, like Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? What would it be like to look at your own words and not recognise them as the fruit of your own anguish or joy, to read them again as though for the first time, perhaps even to underline them and make faint comments in the margin, as the guru occasionally does with his own writing, from which he is now irrevocably estranged?

For decades, he was a man who waited for (and often received) the grace of the image. He chose his words with care, argued ceaselessly with himself, dramatised his interior monologue and let the poem go only when it was evident that the craft could take him no further. Even in his affliction, the urge to perfect his tone has not abandoned him. Sometimes, in the early stages of the disease, he would discover what he perceived to be errors of nuance in what he himself had written, 30 years before or more. And always, in that time of decline, he would put his finger on what seemed wrong, but could not spell out an alternative. How ironic it is, then, that one of his most haunting and incantatory poems (published in his landmark 1952 collection, A Time to Change) should be about the act of looking for the precise words to fit the sensuous invitations that experience holds out to us, to frame into poems that attest to these epiphanic moments, these little transcendences. In "A Word for the Wind", he wrote: "I cannot find a word for the wind,/Another word, a phrase full of it/Like a sail, verses/Moving smoothly like the wind/Over grass, or among the trees/Rustling down the leaves of meaning,/Sound evoking sense, a sudden/Heavy thud of fruit/And long silences/ Over and under the surface of the wind./I cannot find a word for the wind;/Blind as Homer, brooding on the wine-dark sea/I brood on the wind, churning/The springs of many unborn songs in me,/Revealing in a flash the steady flame,/Fire in the heart of wind./I cannot find a word for the wind".

This month, he will turn 77; but he no longer remembers his birthday, or his age, or even his own name. But, acting from some indomitable sense of self that survives the depredations of Alzheimer's disease, Nissim Ezekiel remains unfailingly courteous to his visitors. In the world within his mind, to which none of us can now claim access, he continues to be teacher and guide; he tells visitors that he has manuscripts to read, comments to make, readings to attend. In an age whose gurus are distinguished by their arrogance and their boundless capacity for deception, he remains true to his sense of responsibility towards others, even when all the other markers of identity and location have abandoned him.

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