Friday, July 12, 2024

A View on Nissim Ezekiel’s poem “Night of the Scorpion”

Nissim Ezekiel is an Indian writer in English. He was Professor of Poetry at Harvard. Later he returned to India and was the editor of the poetry column in “The Illustrated Weekly of India”, a celebrated magazine of yester years.

The ethos of the poem Night of the Scorpion is typically Indian. A common Indian’s beliefs, superstitions, the simplistic yet wholistic attitude towards life are presented in an extraordinary fashion. The poem is a painting in words with graphic description.

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“With candles and with lanterns

throwing giant scorpion shadows

on the mud-baked walls”

The arrival and departure of the scorpion and the subsequent search for him present pictures before the mind’s eye.

People came like ‘swarms of flies’ when the mother was in pain. In a village all the people used to live like a family and everything that happened to a person whether pain or pleasure was shared by all. It is a micro form of “Vasudhaika Kutumbam” (‘Earth is one family’ meaning all the people on the planet Earth is one family). They

“… buzzed the name of God a hundred times

to paralyse the Evil One”.

It is believed that if the scorpion moves, the poison in the body of the mother too moves and stops if the name of god is chanted!

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“May the sins of your previous birth

be burned away tonight, they said”

The link between the present suffering to the previous birth or the next birth shows the unique Hindu concept of rebirth and the unending continuity of soul changing bodies.

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“May the sum of all evil

balanced in this unreal world

against the sum of good

become diminished by your pain”.

The balance between the pain already experienced and the pain to be experienced indicates that there is a fixed quota of pain and / or pleasure for everyone in store (depending on his actions) and one has to experience his ‘fate’ or ‘sanchita’ or ‘karma’ or ‘prarabdha’. This is not much different from the concept of “cause and effect”. The same concept is extended to say that the present experience of pain will diminish the quota of pain in the world and the world would become a less painful place to live in because of this incident. The Christian concept of ‘sinner’ too reflects in this idea.

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One mellows only with the experience of pain as ‘poison purifies flesh’ and through that comes the ‘peace of understanding on each face’. The simplistic peasants are the philosophers in peace in the midst of ‘groaning’ pain.

The father tried the rationalistic, superstitious and barbarous ways indicating his immaturity or inability to stick to any one system or belief.

“My father, sceptic, rationalist,

trying every curse and blessing,

powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.

He even poured a little paraffin

upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.”

He represents the ‘Victorian dilemma’ the stage in which man could not believe completely either in religion (because of Darwin’s theory of Evolution) or in Science (because of Einstein’s theory of Relativity which questions the foundation of our perceptions / opinions based on observation). 

There is a dramatic turn in the last stanza in which the rural Indian scene, the typical beliefs of an Indian villager vanish into thin air giving the poem altogether a different dimension viz., a mother’s love and the spirit of sacrifice for her children.

“Thank God the scorpion picked on me

and spared my children”.

Ezekiel strikes a note of universality at the end of the poem showing the supremacy of love in the form of a mother.

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Rajendra Singh Baisthakur
Rajendra Singh Baisthakur
Rajendra Singh Baisthakur had been a Lecturer in English. He is a poet, critic and translator. His interests are Literature, Philosophy and social media.


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