On Nissim Ezekiel’s “The Night of the Scorpion”

The speaker recalls the night when a scorpion stung his mother. Ten hours of heavy rain forced the scorpion to crawl under a sack of rice. Perhaps the speaker’s mother went near the sack to get some rice for cooking. The room was dark. The scorpion with its devilish tail stung the mother in a flash and went away.

The peasants or villagers came into the speaker’s hut. The poet compares them with flies and insects: they came like “swarms of flies/and buzzed the name of God”. They wanted to paralyse the evil scorpion. They thought that if they could paralyse the scorpion, the poison in the mother’s body would not spread. With candles and lanterns they searched for the scorpion; but it was not found.

The poet also compares the villagers with the scorpion. He says that the light of the candles and lanterns created huge shadows of the villagers. The shadows looked like giant scorpions. The villagers “clicked their tongues” to pretend that they had real sympathy for the speaker’s mother. They said that the poison moved in the mother’s body according to the movement of the scorpion. So they prayed for the scorpion to remain still. Then they prayed that the present suffering of the mother might burn away the sins of her previous birth and decrease the misfortunes of her next birth. They also prayed that the sum of her wrong doings might be balanced against the sum of her good deeds; and that the poison might cleanse herself of her earthly desires and ambitions.

The mother struggled with pain. The villagers sat around her. There was no anxiety in their faces. It seemed, as if they knew everything. The number of the neighbours increased. People came with more candles and lanterns. The poet again compares them with insects. As insects gather in attraction of light, the villagers gathered in attraction of the misfortune of the speaker’s mother. Neither the rain stopped, nor the mother’s suffering ended. She kept on twisting and groaning with pain.

The father of the speaker was a “sceptic, rationalist”. He did not believe in prayer or incantation. However, in spite of being a man of science, he joined the villagers in fruitless cursing and blessing. He tried “powder, mixture, herb and hybrid” to cure his wife; but he failed. He even applied a little paraffin on the bite and lit it with a match. He thought it would burn the poison away. On the contrary, the fire began to prey on the mother. Then came the holy man. He performed his rites which proved to be equally useless. After twenty hours, the poison lost its power. After such a long suffering, the mother thanked God for the fact that the scorpion bit her and spared her children.

In the poem, Ezekiel satirises the superstitious Indians –the peasants, who performed false religious rites. Their prayers were useless. They pretended to sympathise with the mother and to know everything. Like insects and flies, the superstitious men move in a large number and make useless sounds. They are the giant scorpions who poison the Indian society. Equally fruitless were the holy man’s rites. Perhaps the poet wants to say that false religious customs and rituals can do no good to India. Besides, he satirises false rationality and flawed scientific thinking. It seems that the father of the speaker was not a true man of science. He only pretended to be so. That is why his efforts increased the mother’s suffering. False religious belief and flawed science –both are harmful for the Indian society.

The last few lines give the poem a profound significance. The lines foreground the self-sacrificing nature of an Indian mother. The speaker’s mother is an epitome of altruism. Her words in the poem prove that her love for her children was self-less. She suffered for a long time; yet, she relieved herself with the thought that her children were safe. She might be regarded as a representative of all self-sacrificing Indian mothers. The patriarchal society offers them little happiness. Often they are made to suffer. Yet, they emerge with indomitable spirit and courage. We must note that the speaker’s mother in the poem ultimately won her battle against the scorpion. It can be assumed that the struggle of the mother against the scorpion is symbolic of the struggle of all Indian mothers against the patriarchal social forces. At first the mother appears to be a mere victim. The scorpion stung her and there was no real help for her. Efforts made by the villagers were useless. Her “sceptic, rationalist” husband added to her suffering. The holy man could not cure her. In the end, it was she who fought the poison out. The poem thus can be regarded as a tribute to the endurance of Indian mothers.

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