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 stingiest 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.
The Setting of The Night of the Scorpion:
The poem is spatial, i.e. according to geographical space, set against the back drop of an Indian village. The time is night and the climate is wet after a shower of ten hours. Temporally, i.e. according to time, the poem is a reminiscence of the poet’s childhood. The tone of the poem though in a very innocent way brings out the inherent irony in the poem. Here the mood of the poet is not directly satirical but indirectly very biting and scathing. In the garb of innocence, the poet simply brings out the complex bent of mind of the simple village folk. There is hardly any anger visible on the surface but inside the poet seethes with rage at the ignorance and stupidity of the village folk including his father. This is the characteristic detached way of Ezekiel’s satire where he says so much without making a big effort. The fact that the satire involves his mother, who is the helpless victim of the stupidity of the people, does not make the poem any subjective. Which itself becomes a point of cruelty to us. We might chide the poet for his apparent detachment from the whole episode where he claims that his mother was in great pain. However, we can also defend the poet by saying that the event took place way back in his childhood and thus has lost its personal touch. However, when we re-read the poem the anger that is present becomes easily apparent. The apparent innocence of the narrative also undercuts the mock seriousness of the mythical and philosophical mumbo jumbo of the poem where incarnation and reincarnations are talked of. The poem mocks in its narrative the over dependence of the common people on divinity for anything and everything. And yet finally, the solemnness of the poem is confirmed in the last lines of the poem where the mother wishes for the pain of the children.
Stanza-wise Annotations of The Night of the Scorpion:
(Lines 1- 10) – Steady rain – continuous rain for ten hours. It seems to be a hyperbole since a steady rain would perhaps bring a greater distress like a possibility of the flood as opposed to the sting of the scorpion.
Flash – denotes the quickness of the Scorpion. It could be a parallelism to the flashing of the lightning that a rain is accompanied with.
Diabolical – evil
Dark room – This could be a continuation of the image of the flash. A flash is used to take pictures with a camera. A negative is developed in the dark rooms. This image becomes more interesting when we take into account the picturesque way the story is narrated in the verse. It seems the poet by remembering the incident is playing a film.
(Lines 11- 20) – Swarm – group.
Buzzed – making a noise similar to the flies. It is an onomatopoeia.
Paralyzed – make something static or unable to move.
Evil one – the Scorpion.
Scorpion shadows – the people who were chasing the scorpion cast shadows because of the light from the candles and the lanterns. Here the poet in his characteristic irony and subdued anger signifies that the foolish peasants are as harmful to the mother as the Scorpion. In fact, with the superstitiousness, they are more harmful. This superstition is as poisonous as the scorpion is. The poison of the scorpion destroys the body whereas the poison of superstition destroys the society.
Mud-baked walls – walls made up of mud.
Clicked – making a sound which denotes some distressing situation. Here it means an ominous situation.
. . .every movement that the scorpion made . . . Mother’s blood, . . . – it was believed that the more the scorpion could move the more quickly the poison would move in the body of the mother. It is a mere superstition obviously.
(Lines 21- 30)
Previous birth – it is another superstition that says that we have seven births in this world and that if we do something wrong in this birth then we will be punished in the next. Further, if one person commits enough wrong deeds one can also take the shape of a lesser creature like an insect in the next birth. Yet again if one suffers enough in this birth then in the next birth we might have fewer sufferings. The poet uses this satirical poem against the rampant superstition that threatens not only the rational balance of the society but also the health and even the life of a person. In this case, the life of the mother of the poet is under threat not so much from the sting and poison of the scorpion but from the mindless misbelieves of the common uneducated people in the village. But one can point out that this disease of the mind infects the city-bred educated people also.
Unreal world – according to the Hindu mythology, theology and philosophy (in the case of India it often becomes difficult to distinguish between the three!) the world that we see is Maya which denotes the temporariness and unreality of the material world. According to the popular belief of the Hindu philosophy, the world that we can see and touch is just a shadow of the heaven where gods live.
Sum of good – see ‘previous birth’ above.
Flesh – The body. It is usually believed that pain and suffering take away the ills of the body.
(Last 20 lines)
Desire – Some demand of the mind as well as the flesh. This desire could be the desire for both material and carnal gains.
Spirit of ambition – According to Hindu philosophy since this world is unreal any ambition other than the ambition of moksha (the riddance of the soul from the cycle of birth and death or a condition where the soul meets the God and disappears into the same) is futile.
Peace of understanding – Ironically enough the poet says that while the mother was in pain the neighbors had a calmness which was more irritating for the poet. The people surrounding the mother are not in pain and thus could just have a fake understanding of the pain.
Twisted through and through – the mother convulsed and writhed in pain.
Sceptic – one who does not believe something by its appearance only.
Rationalist – one who believes that the world functions due to some higher rationality or everything around us are governed by some set plans and a cause and effect relationship.
Curse and blessing – this oxymoron create an interesting balance and contrast especially when we take into consideration the fact that the father of the poet was a skeptic and a rationalist. The phrase heightens the irony of the poem.
Herb – a plant having medicinal qualities.
Hybrid – a mixture of two things or an advanced form of something.
Paraffin – wax
Flame feeding – the flame of fire burning the toe of the mother and thus causing extra pain.
Holy man – the father of the poet.
Rites – holy acts.
Tame – reduce the effect of poison.
Incantation – saying a hymn.