Nissim Ezekiel’s Night of the Scorpion is a strong yet simple statement on the power of self-effacing love. Full to the brim with Indianness, it captures a well-detached black and white snapshot of Indian village life with all its superstitious simplicity. The poet dramatizes a battle of ideas fought at night in lamplight between good and evil; between darkness and light; between rationalism and blind faith. And out of this confusion, there arises an unexpected winner – the selfless love of a mother.
The poem opens with the poet’s reminiscence of a childhood experience. One night his mother was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours of steady rain had driven the scorpion to hiding beneath a sack of rice. After inflicting unbearable pain upon the mother with a flash of its diabolic tail, the scorpion risked the rain again.
The peasant-folk of the village came like swarms of flies and expressed their sympathy. They believed that with every movement the scorpion made, the poison would move in mother’s blood. So, with lighted candles and lanterns they began to search for him, but in vain.
To console the mother they opened the bundle of their superstitions. They told mother that the suffering and pain will burn away the sins of her previous birth. “May the suffering decrease the misfortunes of your next birth too”, they said.
Mother twisted and groaned in mortifying pain. Her husband, who was sceptic and rationalist, tried every curse and blessing; powder, herb and hybrid. As a last resort he even poured a little paraffin on the bitten part and put a match to it.
The painful night was long and the holy man came and played his part. He performed his rites and tried to tame the poison with an incantation. After twenty hours the poison lost its sting.
The ironic twist in the poem comes when in the end the mother who suffered in silence opens her mouth. She says, “Thank God the scorpion picked on me and spared my children.”
Night of the Scorpion creates a profound impact on the reader with an interplay of images relating to good and evil, light and darkness. Then the effect is heightened once again with the chanting of the people and its magical, incantatory effect. The beauty of the poem lies in that the mother’s comment lands the reader quite abruptly on simple, humane grounds with an ironic punch. It may even remind the reader of the simplistic prayer of Leo Tolstoy’s three hermits: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.”
Indian Background: Ezekiel is known to be a detached observer of the Indian scenario and this stance often has the power of a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. On the one side Night of the Scorpion presents an Indian village through the eyes of an outsider and finds the deep-rooted strains of superstition and blind faith which may seem foolish to the western eye. But on the other, the poem never fails to highlight the positive side of Indian village life. The poet does not turn a blind eye to the fellow-feeling, sympathy and cooperation shown by the villagers. And in a poem that deals with the all-conquering power of love, the reader too should be well aware of it.
Clash of Ideas: There is a contrast between the world of irrationality represented by the villagers and the world of rationalism represented by the father who tries all rational means to save his wife from suffering. Religion too plays its role with the holy man saying his prayers. But all three become futile. Or do they? One cannot totally ignore the underlying current of love and fellow-feeling in their endeavours.
Theme: Images of the dark forces of evil abound in Night of the Scorpion; the diabolic tail of the scorpion, giant scorpion shadows on the sun-baked walls and the night itself point to evil. In fact, the poem is about the pertinent question as to what can conquer evil. Where superstition, rationalism and religion proved futile, the self-effacing love of a mother had its say. Once again it is “Amor vincit omnia.” Love conquers all, and that is all you need to know.