Freedom of speech is a first amendment in the constitution of the United States of America. As an Indian-American living in Finland, joining the Finnish PEN opened an opportunity to be involved in supporting a value that firmly entrenches equality and the essence of freedom into progressive and modern society. When I informed my family that I had joined the PEN organization, I received an unexpected response from my older family members. They said that my great uncle would have been very proud. What I had not known before deciding to submit my application was that my great uncle, the Indian Poet Nissim Ezekiel, headed PEN India in the mid-eighties. Many decades later and thousands of kilometers to the west in Finland, I have found a place to play a small role in upholding a legacy of freedom of expression and seemingly, also what is now somewhat of a family tradition.
I was only a child when Nissim took over as the editor and leader of the PEN All-India Center. His daughter, my aunt Kavita Mendonca who is a poet herself, has nothing but “happy memories of a very happy and fulfilled father in the PEN office surrounded by books and manuscripts and always lots of people of all ages seeking advice about their writing”. Nissim is considered the father of modern Indian-English poetry by many critics. Kavita says her father welcomed all aspiring writers and poets who visited him at the center and had time for them all.
The Ezekiels, including my grandmother, belonged to Mumbai’s Marathi-speaking Jewish community known as the Bene Israel. Only a few thousand remain today in India, with most emigrating away from India after independence, mostly to Israel and other commonwealth related countries. After researching the work of my great uncle, I discovered that the PEN India Center founded an important meeting point for established and emerging poets, and came to be recognized as an integral location in the history of Indian poetry in English. From the late 1960s in particular, poetry began to feature prominently in the Center’s events and magazine ”The Indian PEN”. This change reflected wider literary and cultural shifts taking place across the city, as well as the role of individuals who were important in shaping the existence of the organization. Nissim stayed in India during the post-colonial years and published various books over the five decades after Indian independence, including poetry, prose, plays, and literary critiques. He received notable awards from the Indian government for his work and was revered by friends, family and other admirers alike. Although he passed away in 2004, his work lives on, and his poetry is taught in schools and universities.
I recall meeting Nissim only a handful of times during my childhood, when the writer inside me was growing but largely unconscious. It is now a privilege, not only to share similar interests and aspirations as my great uncle, but to know that he also believed in the values and importance of the PEN organization.