Every poet, good or bad, writes a poem that strikes the right chords with a majority of readers. Say, Frost. He is so much loved for so many poems, yet many take the name of ‘Road not taken’ or ‘Sleeping by woods..’ when you mention his name. With the Nissim Ezekiel such an oft remembered poem is The Night of the Scorpion. In this poem the speaker, an adult now in awe of his mother’s love for her children, remembers the time in his childhood when a scorpion had stung his mother. It was a rainy night, cold, and a scorpion had slipped into the house, perhaps for warmth. The skill of Ezekiel in this poem is in making it so evocative. It has his characteristic irony, and even a hint of satire. But what catches our attention is the vividity of the description.
For example, see how the poet refers to the remembered detail of the visiting neighbours who come expressing sympathy and solidarity: “The peasants came like swarms of flies”. This image gathers together at once a statement and a description of the behaviour of the neighbours: villagers coming to visit in big numbers and the continuous noise (not very useful speech but an endless stream of repetitive chatter) they make. Rarely do we come across vividity of such density.
Similar is the lines: “With candles and with lanterns throwing giant scorpion shadows/ on the sun-baked walls they searched for him; he was not found”. The image here is at once apt, vivid and accurate. The villagers with candles or lanterns are searching for the scorpion. It is obvious that they bend forward in this search. This action would require them to hold the lamps ahead of them and at a low height. The light from these lanterns catches the bending shapes of the villagers and throws shadows on the walls which naturally are amplified in the process. To the bewildered child who is seeing all these commotion, these shadows appear like giant scorpions because of their bloated size and because scorpion is on everyone’s mind and talk.
The use of inversion in the following lines with the repeated ‘they said’ ending is effective in recreating the effect of repetition and reporting. The closing lines make the poem a bit romantic although I reckon, many like the poem for the sentiment contained in those lines.
In the Indian classrooms when this poem is taught, what seem to receive emphasis is the status of superstition. I feel that the poem is not really about superstition. Somehow, the paraphernalia that surround this poem in most of the academic anthologies encourage the students to consider this poem as a criticism of the superstition among Indians. That interpretation beats me. How about you?
Here is the text:
I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion.
Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison — flash of diabolic tail in the dark room — he risked the rain again.
The peasants came like swarms of flies and buzzed the Name of God a hundred times to paralyse the Evil One.
With candles and with lanterns throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the sun-baked walls they searched for him; he was not found.
They clicked their tongues. With every movement the scorpion made his poison moved in Mother’s blood, they said.
May he sit still, they said.
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of evil balanced in this unreal world against the sum of good become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh of desire, and your spirit of ambition, they said, and they sat around on the floor with my mother in the centre.
The peace of understanding on each face.
More candles, more lanterns, more neighbours, more insects and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist, trying every curse and blessing, powder, mixture, herb, and hybrid. He even poured a little paraffin upon the bitten toes and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother.
I watched the holy man perform his rites to tame the poison with incantation.
After twenty hours it lost its sting.
My mother only said:
“Thank God the scorpion picked on me and spared my children.”