NIGHT OF THE SCORPION
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 mud-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues.
With every movement that 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 all evil
balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good
be 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 toe 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 an
After twenty hours
it lost its sting.
My mother only said
Thank God the scorpion picked on me
And spared my children.
The Poet: Nissim Ezekiel (1924 - 2004)
Nissim Ezekiel was an Indian poet of Jewish descent who brought out some popular volumes of poetry collections. He was even described as 'the father of post-Independence Indian verse in English'. He wore myriad caps as a teacher, broadcaster, actor, director, editor and critic. He enhanced the influence of Indian English poetry through his modernist techniques, moving beyond themes that were spiritual and oriental to those that encompassed wider societal themes. He was influenced by the writings of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Today, his poems are used in NCERT and ICSE textbooks.
'Night of the Scorpion' is one of Ezekiel's most popular poems. In the poem, the poet describes one rainy night when his mother was bitten by a scorpion. The villagers came in hordes to help the family. They looked for the creature everywhere, but could not find him. They chanted the name of God and hoped that the mother's sins would be burnt away, and that the pain of the poison would absolve her of the sufferings in her next birth as well.
The father was a rationalist, but he could not bear to see his wife in pain. Willing to try every remedy, he even poured some paraffin on her bitten toe and set it on fire. The holy man performed his rites.
However, after twenty hours went by, the sting was removed, the poison lost its power and the mother recovered. In the selfless manner of a mother, she thanked God that the scorpion had bitten her and spared her children.
The poem is couched in simple language, but it reveals a number of superstitions and attitudes that are commonly found in villages and small towns. Religion plays a significant role in the way people handle traumatic situations.
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