Culture

The Poet From Bombay Who Touched Shimon Peres’s Heart

The Israeli president was fond of quoting Nissim Ezekiel’s poem in his public interactions.

Israel's President Shimon Peres speaks during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Jerusalem in this June 16, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files

Israel’s President Shimon Peres speaks during an interview with Reuters at his residence in Jerusalem in this June 16, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who died on Wednesday, was said to be an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and a supporter of India’s bid on the UN Security Council. But there was another Indian who had affected him deeply-the poet Nissim Ezekiel. Peres had come across Ezekiel’s poem Acceptance and was said to love it so much that he often quoted it in his public lectures. Nissim Ezekiel belonged to the minuscule Bene Israeli community of Jews found mainly in western India.

The Bombay poet Nissim Ezekiel with his musician nephew Nandu Bhende

The Bombay poet Nissim Ezekiel with his musician nephew Nandu Bhende

The poem is part of “More Songs for Nandu Bhende” written by Ezekiel for his musician nephew Nandu back in the 1980s. Its opening lines, “I am alone/And you are alone. So why can’t we be/alone together” was seen by Peres as a metaphor for how Israelis and Palestinians could sit across the table and discuss their common concerns. He had quoted the lines at the opening of the Maccabiah Games — also known as the Jewish Olympics — in 2013.

Peres, one of the founding fathers of the state of Israel, had come across it in a book of Ezekiel’s poems and according to the musician’s wife, Usha Bhende, “kept it by his side.” “Then a few years later, Nandu recorded the poem and we sent Mr Peres a CD,” Usha says.

Nandu Bhende was a well known rock musician in Mumbai (then Bombay) who played for several local bands. He passed away suddenly in April 2014. Sometime in the late 1980s, uncle and nephew both collaborated on an album for HMV – brought out only on cassette – which included three of the many poems written by Nissim for his nephew. In an interview, Nissim had said that he had written the songs when his sister Asha, who was Nandu’s mother, had requested him to talk to her son “who was always singing songs.” “I asked Nandu why he can’t do his own songs. He told me he was not sure about writing the words. So I said I would write for him and thus began Songs for Nandu Bhende.” These were published in his collection Latter Day Psalms, in 1982.

Interestingly, the album, called Get Organised did not include Acceptance but three other songs – Undertrial Prisoner, Simple Love Song and Songs to be Shouted Out, all of which Bhende composed and sang were part of it.

Acceptance was recorded much later. “I had facilitated this interaction with President Peres after I had met  him in Israel in 2005 and he had explained to me  his great love of Nissim’s poetry as well as his use of the lyrics from Acceptance as part of his broader discussions with the Palestinians,” Nissim Jr told The Wire.

The CD containing the recording of Acceptance by Nissim Ezekiel sung by his nephew Nandu Bhende

The CD containing the recording of Acceptance by Nissim Ezekiel sung by his nephew Nandu Bhende

Usha says she and other family members pressed Nandu to compose music for the song and after much “dilly dallying” he recorded it. The guitar was played by their son Akshay Moses Bhende. In May 2010 Nissim Jr arranged for the CD along with a letter by Nandu to be delivered to the Vice President along with a letter and soon after, a letter arrived from Peres’s office thanking him for the gift.

peres-letter-1

 

The song was never released officially but can be heard here. Usha says Peres’s death brought back all those memories and she scrambled to look for all the material she had in her scrapbook.

All images courtesy Usha Bhende

  • Usha Bhende

    Very well expressed. President Peres was truly a Messiah of Peace, but with a steel backbone! An astute politician, with a clean heart,we were lucky to meet him at a function organized by the Israel Consulate many years ago, and he left a lasting impression.May he Rest in Peace. Olav Ha-Shalom ינוח על משכבו בשלום
    The song can be heard on the following link…….. https://soundcloud.com/rohandesouza/nandu-bhende-acceptance

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The poems of Ezekiel inspired many Indian writers in English as well as other languages. They have been acclaimed by many foreign writers and politicians, including israeli leader pares .

  • Anjan Basu

    I am not so sure that we are not reading into some private preference — in this case that of the late Shimon Peres for some admirable lyrics — too many layers of deep meaning. i am afraid I find it a little naive to believe that the seasoned, hard-nosed poltician would be reminded of the Israel/ Palestine stand-off by lines such as ‘ I am alone / And you are alone’, and thus be deeply moved by them. For a powerful Israeli statesman, however well-meaning, to believe that a forlorn Palestinian ( in all probability driven out of his West Bank home by bayonets and spiked army boots), and the average Israeli ( well-cared for by his state and often wielding that deady bayonet himself), are equally ‘alone’ would be not far from delusional. And Shimon Peres was a clear-headed man, by all accounts. Let us respect the dead, but don’t let us lose perspectives altogether.