About the poet – A Jewish-Indian poet, playwright, art critic (The Names of India (1964–66)) and editor (Poetry India (1966–67)) born on 14th December 1924 in Mumbai, was regarded as the path finder of the post colonial Indian English writing. Known for his deft handling of the irony of the quintessential Indian milieu and its humorous treatment, he was a poet of the mind rather than the heart. Modernist and anti-romantic in his approach he ushered in a new era of English poetry in India. He is well known for his poems like The Night of the Scorpion, Poet, Lover, Bird Watcher, Enterprise, which were published in one of his many anthologies. He got Padmashri award in 1988 and the Sahitya akademi cultural award in 1983. He passed away on 9th January 2004.
About the poem – The poem was anthologized in Collected Poems (1952 – 1988). It is one of the first poems of Ezekiel and presents a scary picture of the superstition ridden India where an insect is given monstrous dimensions. It carries Ezekiel’s stringiest of satires against the many maladies that affect the Indian society. Not to mention it also explores the ever benign love of a mother for her child, which in itself is a conspicuous feature of Indianness.
Apparently the theme of the poem is an experience of a scorpion bite that was inflicted on the poet’s mother. The poem is a first person narrative of the agony that a son had to undergo watching his mother suffer due to a scorpion sting. But subtly the theme of the poem is a stringent satire on the lack of medical and scientific knowledge that plagues the lives of so many people in India. The poem shows how the physical ailment is associated with the spiritual fallouts in a typical ignorant village.
Obviously the tone is satirical. Pungent yet Horatian; Subtle and biting, the tone is that of a wronged person who sees the futility of a protest in the face of an ignorant army.
The author recounts the night, a scorpion driven by continuous rain hidden beneath a rice sack stung the poet’s mother and ran off after the attack. The villagers tried to search for the insect in order to immobilize it so that the poison doesn’t spread since according to their belief the more the insect moves the more the poison spreads inside the body. Unable to find the creature the villagers prayed that the scorpion be still and invoked the gods. According to the villagers the sting of the scorpion would purge the impurities of the flesh and would make the mother spiritually healthy. Nobody did anything for the benefit of the mother other than make these kinds of nonsensical remarks except the father who tried all his quack techniques to heal the lady but it took around 20 hours for the poison to lose its sting and until then the mother writhed in pain and thanked god for the punishment that was meted to her instead of her children being victimized.
The choice of words is so made as to suggest the simplicity of the emotion conveyed but the simple words do signify greater attitudes and that is what good poetry is all about. The words like ‘clicked their tongues’, ‘mud baked walls’ etc add an exotic Indian touch to the poem. The simplicity of the poem again is highlighted by the choice of simple words. In fact all the words are simple and any number of words will suffice as examples. Again the words do convey the double edgedness of the satire where the descriptive-narrative flavor of the poem is intensified. Building on that the poem’s diction is very well suited to the occasion of poem which seeks to describe a situation.
The theme of the poem is well reflected in the diction where it is dexterously used to describe a typical village with ‘sack of rice’ and ‘mud baked walls’ and of course ‘peasants’. Again, the mention of the names of the various quack items like – ‘powder, mixture, herb and hybrid’ used by the father of the poet to cure the mother are dipped in the colour of India. It is interesting to find that the poet uses numerical details to focus perhaps his sharp memory or to make the pretension of the sharpness of memory. The poet mentions ten hours and again twenty hours. Ezekiel perhaps also sets off his precise calculative approach against the vagueness of the villagers. As usual Ezekiel’s use of the Indian English is loaded with all the ironic insinuations that make the poem rich in its suggestive content.
The structure of the poem is quite modern since it doesn’t really have much of a regular structure to talk of. Stanzas do not follow any set type or format. The poem seems to be a remembrance as the word ‘remember’ suggests. The details mentioned are also vague (though the details of the duration and the names of the herbs are very precisely mentioned). The poem starts with the climax where the diabolic act is already done and the entire poem is a follow up of whatever goes on after the sting. In fact the sting of superstition seems to be more dangerous and harmful than the sting of the scorpion. The scorpion’s poison seems to run parallel with the poison of superstition. The scorpion is poisonous, so is the ignorance of the villagers. The mother is not the mother of the author but the body politic of the society. The poem seems to tell an age old story.
The story that how an ailment ails a society and how the people inside the society instead of working for the benefit of the society works against it bound by their dark ignorance. It is the story of India where any problem is directly related to one’s earlier and latter life of the victim. The same happens with the mother whose getting stung is regarded as the litmus test of her bodily and spiritual sanctity. If instead of a scorpion it would have been a snake, the lady might have had died, yet the villagers who cast ‘scorpion shadows’ on the wall clicked their tongues and would have sat doing nothing with their ‘peace of understanding on their faces’.
The second part of the structure of the poem deals with the patriarch, the father and the healer, who appears to be as ineffectual as the villagers with his bogus charms and herbs. He even applies wax on the toe of the mother and burnt it. Therefore instead of doing any scientific and rational thing the patriarch prayed and yet he is ironically called a skeptic, rationalist. The irony is rather too apparent here. Finally the poem ends with the all accepting calmness of the mother who is ever ready to be picked on by any kind of calamity instead of her children.
The images are commensurate with the theme and tone of the poem. Every irony is supported by an image equally potent. We can start with something obvious as the night which is an archetypal symbol of ignorance. An image that haunts us is the image of the scorpion shadows of the villagers being cast on the walls. An analogy seems to run between the swarms of insect and the swarms of the villagers. The clicking of the tongues is no different than the flash of the scorpion’s appendage. Another significant image of the poem is the image of the flame preying on the mother. The image invokes the several horrible incidents where the greedy husband often burns the hapless wife for dowry, in jealousy or in inebriation. The subtle horror and not so subtle anger in the poem is obviously conveyed by the blank verse which is a suitable vehicle for suggesting agony and anxiety. Thus we find the poem to be an excellent specimen of modernist poetry.