Walt Whitman and the Professor – Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca

It was the day of the final exam for the American literature ‘paper’ (we called it that those days in Bombay), for my Master’s degree. I was extremely nervous. The Bombay heat was stifling, what was even more stifling was my sense of panic.  I had studied hard for English Literature, which I was majoring in, but for some reason not so much for the Minor, which was American Literature.  I preferred to sing in the St Xavier’s college choir, and skipped classes at the University by the professor teaching American Literature. He happened to be Nissim Ezekiel, my father, and my absence from class had not escaped his notice. He would ask me about it in the evening and I would mutter some sort of evasive response. He was not particularly fond of prolonging arguments and remained calm in all circumstances. He took my explanations in stride.

Anyway, that morning, I mentioned to daddy that I was not at all prepared for the exam, but I would take the bus, and go to the location and ‘sit for the paper.’ Those were the kind of expressions we used for appearing for an exam! Perhaps it was a dialect of English called Indian English! Daddy looked more than a little sceptical, and said he would take me to the exam himself, and drop me off before going to his work. Each time I raised a problem, no matter what the issue, taking a cab and chaperoning me to my destination, was daddy’s usual solution.

So we crossed the street and hailed a cab. Once we were seated, I sheepishly confided in daddy that Walt Whitman was part of the prescribed syllabus (now spoken of as curriculum) and I did not know much about him. I told him that I did not have time to ‘cover that portion’ (another very Indian expression)! In other words I had not studied Whitman, and there would definitely be a question on the exam about the poet.

To my amazement, daddy did not reprimand me (he rarely did) and started calmly narrating important details about Whitman’s life and works. Daddy used to prepare his lectures meticulously, often spending two hours on a lecture he was going to deliver. He told me that the secret to good teaching was thorough preparation.  Then, to my utter delight, he started reciting large chunks of ‘Song of Myself,’ from Leaves of Grass.  His eyes twinkled, his hands made those familiar poetic gestures, and he seemed to forget I was in the cab with him.  He was wrapped in Whitman’s world! The cab driver kept looking in his mirror with a puzzled look on his face. Mercifully, he didn’t know English. Thanks to the Bombay traffic in the crowded streets, the cab took a long time to reach the ‘exam hall.’ Thankfully too, I was blessed with a good memory and out of sheer desperation, I had paid careful attention to daddy’s every word.

Eventually, we got there.  I waited anxiously as the question papers were handed out, my hands and my pen placed strategically in position, ready for the attack. The supervisor called out the order to begin.  My eyes went straightaway to the question on Walt Whitman. Everything daddy had told me came tumbling out and I wrote furiously, shaking the desk in the enthusiasm that I had unlocked the secrets to Whitman. I passed the exam, not sure whether it was with flying colors, or not. But I passed!  I think I thanked daddy only after the results were declared. He simply replied that Whitman was one of the greatest American poets and I should read him carefully, if I wanted to be inspired to write good poetry.

In 1988, while living at my grandmother’s house for our annual vacation from the school where we worked, my husband was cleaning one of the rooms. He remembers vividly finding an old trunk.  He cleaned off the dust and opened the top.  It was full to the brim with handwritten notes in Dad’s meticulous hand-writing on lined sheets.  The title page on one of the sheets read ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman.  We marvelled at the rigor with which Dad approached his work in dissecting Whitman’s writing.  This treasure, to our regret, like so many other personal belongings, has been lost in transition.

Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca was born and raised in a Bene- Israel Jewish family in Bombay, now, Mumbai.  She was educated at the Queen Mary School, Bombay, received her BA in English and French at St Xavier’s college, an MA from the University of Bombay in English and American Literature, and a Master’s in Education from Oxford Brookes University, England. She has taught English, French and Spanish in various colleges and schools in India and overseas, in a teaching career spanning over four decades.  

After her sabbatical in Oxford, where her thesis was on Women in Leadership, she also held the position of Career Counsellor at the school. Her first book, Family Sunday and Other Poems was published in 1989, with a second edition in 1990. She has read her poems for the All India Radio in Mumbai, and her poem ‘Family Sunday’ was featured in an Anthology of Women’s Writing. She writes Poetry and Short Fiction, and is a member of the Significant League of Poets. She has recently started poetry in Hindi and Marathi, translates her poetry into French and Spanish, and manages her own Poetry page on Facebook.  Kavita is the daughter of the late poet, Nissim Ezekiel. Thanks to her poet father, Kavita has been steeped in poetry from childhood and has always had a passion for the written and spoken word. Preserving her father’s legacy is something very closer to her heart. She is currently working on her second book of poems, and a memoir of her life.