About the poet- Nissim Ezekiel
Nissim Ezekiel, an Indian born Jew of Bene-Israel origin, belongs to the new poetry in Indian English poetry of the fifties and one of the notable post-Independence Indian English poets. A Time to Change (1952), Sixty Poems (1953), The Unfinished Man (1960), The Exact Name (1965) and Hymns in Darkness (1976) are some of his verse collection. “Night of the Scorpion”, “Very Indian Poem in Indian English”, “Enterprise” are some of his most popular poems. “Night of the Scorpion” was published in The Exact Name.
Bird’s-eye view- Night of the Scorpion
The main idea of “Night of the Scorpion” is a representation of rural Indian ethos, beliefs on evil, suffering, and its people.
Summary and analysis – Night of the Scorpion
A rainy night
The poem “Night of the Scorpion” recounts an incident that occurred on a miserable rainy night. The poet remembers that it had been raining heavily for ten hours and a scorpion crawled beneath a sack of rice in the poet’s home to keep itself away from water. Then unfortunately the scorpion stung the poet’s mother and after biting his mother the scorpion with its diabolic tail it left the house.
It must be a rainy night in summer because we experience heavy rain only in summer. So the setting of the poem “Night of the Scorpion” is a rainy night. The encounter between the poet’s mother and the scorpion is not told in detail. We don’t know why the scorpion stung the poet’s mother. One thing is clear that the scorpion came to keep itself dry from the relentless rain, it might have stung only to protect itself. The poet’s address of the scorpion as ‘diabolic’ suggests the poet’s anger at it and from a son’s perspective, it is justifiable.
The concern of the neighboring peasants
Upon knowing the poet’s mother was stung by a scorpion, the neighboring peasants quickly they came to the poet’s house “like swarms of flies”. They took God’s name a hundred times in order to paralyze the evil. They started to find out the scorpion but their search went in vain. The peasants clicked their tongues.
Here the bond between individual families and the neighboring peasants is appreciable. Unlike urban areas, people in rural areas live in unity. The relationship between the poet’s family and the neighboring peasants is strong. They are very helpful who came forward to help. Here the poet uses the simile “like swarms of flies” to compare the movement of flies and the people to the poet’s house.
The people, in general, are conventional and follow their customs and this is reflected in the poem when the poet’s mother was stung by a scorpion, they began to click their tongues.
Views on the victim
The peasants said that every movement made by the scorpion would lead the progress of the poison in the victim’s body and the pain would be more acute. They wished that the scorpion might sit still so that pain would be less severe. They also said that the pain will purge the sins of her previous birth. Moreover, they said that the suffering will decrease the misfortunes of her next birth. They thought that the sum of all evil and good might be balanced by the pain.
Furthermore, they thought that the poison might purify the flesh of her desire, ambition. They sat around her on the floor and they looked content for they thought they grasped the situation. It is ironic that they thought they had understood her pain, whereas they could not understand the groaning of the poet’s mother.
More neighbors visited the house with candles and lanterns, and the rain kept showering. Poet’s mother was rolling her body on the mat and groaning because of pain.
The neighbors wanted to kill the scorpion to stop the pain of the poet’s mother but at the same time they believed that the pain is the outcome of past evil or this pain is a way to lessen the misfortunes in the next birth. What a contradictory belief this could be, where the pain is the symbol of sins, it is also the symbol of purgation at the same time. They may be superstitious but their concern for the poet’s mother who was suffering from scorpion bite is really appreciable.
The reaction of the poet’s father
The poet’s father, a skeptic, and rationalist implemented his knowledge of science in that incident to alleviate his wife’s pain. He tried “every curse and blessing, power, mixture, herb and hybrid”. As a last resort he “poured a little paraffin” upon the bitten toe and put a flash of match-stick to it. The “flame feeding on my mother” means that the flame is eating up his mother’s toe.
The poet dramatizes a contrast between the world of irrationality represented by the villagers and the world of rationalism represented by the father. We see the use of alliteration in the line “poured a little paraffin”. Though the father was a rational person, his decision to use paraffin on the mother’s toe is not a rational approach. However, we can’t deny his motif who attempts all means to save his wife from suffering in that dire situation.
Even a holy man was called to poet’s house “to tame the poison with an incantation”. It was their belief that ritual could save her. They did not think of need of a physician, instead of that a holy man was called to perform his. Despite these various attempts none did work.
Concern of the mother for her children
When the pain subsided, poet’s mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my childrenNight of the Scorpion, 169
The reaction of the poet’s mother just after the relief from the excrutiating pain is noteworthy. The irony comes only with the last lines when the poet’s mother thanks God for making the scorpion pick her to sting rather than her children. “The concern of the villagers and the poet’s father seem rather superficial when pitted against the heartfelt feelings of his mother.” (406)
It is universal truth that a mother is ready to suffer all types of pains and tortures with a smiling face, but she will not bear any pain imposed on her children. Concern for her children mattes the most for her. Ezekiel here conveys an underlying message of motherhood. From this line we also come to know about her faith in God.
Structure of Night of the Scorpion
The poem “Night of the Scorpion” eight stanzas and is a free verse. That means there is no definite rhyme scheme and the free verse allows the poet freedom of expression.
Nissim Ezekiel’s “Night of the Scorpion” presents an Indian village in the sixties with its deep-rooted strains of superstition and blind faith. Nevertheless, the poem puts some light on the unity of Indian village people. Therefore “Night of the Scorpion” is not only a poem of an incident in the life of the poet’s mother but also a poem of Indian belief and culture and Nissim Ezekiel has succeeded in presenting a rural Indian picture with vivid imagery.
- Mahanta, Pona, et al., editors. Poems Old and New. Macmillan, 2011, pp. 168-169, 406.
- Naik, M.K. A History of Indian English Liteature. Sahitya Akademi, pp. 202-203.