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by Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee
He was a foundational figure in postcolonial India's literary history, specifically for Indian writing in English . He is rightly considered to be the Father of post independence Indian verse in English. He was a prolific poet, playwright, critic, broadcaster and social commentator.But as a poet in Indian English Writing Nissim Ezekiel’s contribution is outstanding. It is very much substantial and valuable chiefly because, his poetry contains some of the aspects of Indianness. Indianness lies in Ezekiel’s commitment to this country and in his earnest and sincere desire to bring about some improvement in the conditions of life in this country through his poetry. His poetry reflects his desire to depict the depressing, degrading and disgusting conditions of life in this country. When we study W B Yeats and T.S.Eliot,we talk about the Irish sensibility in Yeats or American influence in Eliot and so on. However the momentwe speak about the reflection of Indian sensibility in Indian English poetry, the first name that comes to our mind is that of Nissim Ezekiel as his poetry reflects his Indianness. Nissim Ezekiel has beautifully used Indian experiences what we call Indianness from his poetry.Ezekiel belongs to a immigrant Jewish family although he himself was born and brought up in Mumbai, and got educated in Mumbai. Besides some trips to various foreign countries, he has lived, worked and earned his livelihood in Mumbai.
As a man and as a poet, he has observed and experienced much of Indian life very closely. Taine argued that literature was largely the product of the author's environment, and that an analysis of that environment could yield a perfect understanding of the work of literature. By following Taine’s s three-pronged approach to the contextual study of a work of art, based on the aspects of what he called "race, milieu, and moment". Nissim Ezekiel has beautifully used the long history of Indianness as the socio-cultural identity, its different expressions, and its rich variety
in his poetry. Indianness in Indian writing in English, is the sum-total of cultural patterns of Indian and the deep-seated ideas and ideals-political, economic, secular and spiritual-that constitute the mind of India and Nissim Ezekiel has skillfully used most of the aspects of Indian life and cultures in his poetry.As a realistic poet , Ezekiel shows the desire to see better conditions of life in this country . His poems show his love for the country of his adoption. Ezekiel’s poetry contains various aspects of Indianness. Indianness is a vital element in Ezekiel’s thought, feeling and imagery. Indianness has become one of the major themes of Ezekiel’s poetry, which he treats as an intense personal exploration. The thought and feeling are supported by the surrounding atmosphere and characters in the poems which are purely Indian and they follow the Indian way of life as in the poems ‘Night of the scorpion’ in which the portrait of an Indian mother is ever touching.
In ‘Night of the Scorpion’ Ezekiel narrates the incident of an Indian village woman stung by a scorpion in the rainy night. The speaker’s mother was stung by a scorpion one night. Through the beautiful portrayal of the superstitions and motherly sympathy of particular Indian village, the poet portrays the credulous nature of the rural people. After stinging her, the scorpion had swiftly moved away from her and gone out into the rain, though it was because of the rain that it had come into the house. Then the peasants in the neighbourhood, on learning about a woman having been stung by a scorpion,
People who had come to the woman to express their sympathy. say:
“May he sit still, they said
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May the poison purify your flesh
of desire and your spirit of ambition”.
And after when it loses it’s stung after twenty hours, mother’s response is most touching, she says:
“Thank God the scorpion picked on me
and spared my children”.
This is how an Indian mother feels concerned about the welfare and safety of her children. V. M. Madge writes on the poem, “The Metropolitan contempt for the rural population is reflected in the image of peasant coming “like swarms of flies” and “buzzing” the name of God a hundred times. Majority of the villagers are superstitious and they believe that prayers and incantations are the only solution for diseases. The speaker’s father in the poem is representative of a few educated people who are rationalists and sceptics.
In another poem ‘Edinburgh Interlude-lightly’ Ezekiel depicts the situation when the daughter-in-law who has just come from her honey-moon. The following lines describe the typical Indian situation, where mother-in-law says:
“Don’t worry, dear,
I need no help in the kitchen.
Leave it to me, please”.
The girl does not help her in the kitchen. After this, father-in-law says to daughter-in-law:
“You must try to understand
She’s a very kind woman, you know.
There aren’t many who do
all the work in the kitchen”.
Then the son replies to the bride,
“If you quarrel with my mother,
you quarrel with me”.
The poet beautifully uses an Indian context and the poem deals with the traditional rivalry of the daughter-in-law and mother- in-law.
To Ezekiel , poverty in the land of plenty is surprising and the dismal picture of poverty is depicted in alarming terms in ‘The Truth about the Floods’
“I have not eaten for three days
My husband has been washed away
My parents have abandoned me
My son is dying
I can not find my daughter”.
But the family bonding is there. Even in his starving state and the hour of crisis , the mother is concerned about the children. Ezekiel is of opinion that a writer should be a man of convictions, upholding human values. He should be “a man speaking to men,” as Wordsworth puts it. This is more beautifully revealed in ‘The Railway Clerk’.
Nissim Ezekiel vividly describes the extensive poverty and ugliness of India, especially in big cities. In ‘The Railway Clerk’ Ezekiel reveals the pathetic condition of the a poor railway clerk who represents the wretchedness of the middle class people. The railway clerk says:
“It isn’t my fault
I do what I’m told
but still I am blamed.
This year, my leave application
was twice refused”.
Even though he carries out the orders, yet he is criticized. And that is not his only grievance; his leave application was twice rejected in the course of the year.
“My wife is always asking for more money.
Money, Money where to get Money?” ,
Corruption is one of the major problems in India. The clerk says that there is no prospect of his getting any promotion as he is not a graduate.
“I am living far off in Borivali,
My children are neglecting studies,
How long this can go on?”
Thus, the railway clerk symbolizes poverty of India. The clerk represents the pathetic condition of many Indian youth , who are employed but not satisfied with their jobs.
The clerk’s wife always demands more money to meet the household expenses and he does not understand how to get this additional money.And his duty is such that no one offers him bribes. In a way poet wants to throw light on the ‘corruption’ in Government offices. Ezekiel’s poems are marked by this sense of realism. Nissim opposed the idealism and romanticism of the earlier group of Indian writers in English, and tried to look at any typical Indian situation with an Indian attitude, with a novel and dynamic Indian insight. He cleverly manipulated Indian English to bring out the Indian worldview.
In his autobiographical poem ‘Background Casually’ , the poet speaks about his school days : “ I went to Roman Catholic School/ A mugging Jew among the wolves/They told me I had killed the Christ/ That year I won the scripture prize/A Muslim sportsman boxed my ears/I grew in terror of the strong / But undernourished Hindu lads/ Their prepositions always wrong/ Repelled me by passivity/ One noisy day I used a knife”. In these lines we get the picture of alienation, discrimination and torture that Ezekiel had to face in his childhood. Ezekiel here indicates the prevailing feeling of religious and communal discrimination in Indian society. He feels alienated among his classmates. He again feels alienated among the Hindus and Muslims as he belongs to a minority community. the feeling of alienation among the strangers haunts him and he starts craving for returning back to India, his birth place. Ezekiel continues in ‘Background, Casually’: “I have made my commitments now/.This is one: ‘to stay where I am,/As others choose to give themselves/In some remote and backward place.’ These lines reflect that Ezekiel is totally committed to India as he has no place to go. He understands that he cannot get rid of his sense of being an Indian. “Now he is part of India as India is the part of his soul. A passage in Ezekiel’s well-known essay, “Naipaul’s India and Mine” shows the importance of India in his life: In the India which I have presumed to call mine, I acknowledge without hesitation the existence of all darkness Mr. Naipaul discovered. . . . To other countries I am a foreigner. In India I am an Indian”. (p.88) Creating a very Indian flavour, Ezekiel's devotion to Indian writing in English is unique. His three poems "A Very Indian Poem in Indian English", "A Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T. S." and "The Professor" describe the characteristic Indian attitude in so-called 'Swadeshi Angrezi". These poems depict the syntactical oddities of English used by Indian speakers.These poems imitate the idiolect features of English used by Gujarati speakers. Some of these features are also present in other Indian languages: the use of the present progressive tense for the simple present tense, un-English collocation of lexical items, and literal translation of phrases and idioms. “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T. S.” is a satire on the English language of the urban Indians, particularly English of the people of Bombay. Written in the form of a farewell speech, the poem revels in a mood of good humoured parody. The occasion is Miss Pushpa “is departing for foreign. The rambling style typical of such speeches is tellingly employed; all logic is taken leave of, and typical Indian thought processes are expressed .The colleagues of the speaker including Miss Pushpa may never catch the fun as they are incapable of finding out the grammatical errors. Therein lies the beauty and originality of the poem. Ezekiel has no reluctance to tell the world that his compatriots’ English is not pure. Even he does not claim that he is a master of English language. .In his poem "A Very Indian Poem in Indian English", he uses the progressive tense, reduplication processes modeled after Indian languages, and typical expressions that we employ in our Indian English:
I am standing for peace and non-violence.
Why world is fighting fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understanding.
Ancient Indian Wisdom is 100% correct.
I should say even 200% correct.
While the content easily relates to the concern of Gandhian/Indian attitudes in politically conscious, world-minded and peace-loving Indian intellectuals, the very same genuine concern brings in humor and parody when put in English words and constructions of Indian English. This underlying and subtle humor brings out the author-statement on the subject, bordering on satire and irony. The poet does not make any explicit statement, but the technique and device that he employs reveal his position, even as the description truly reflects Indian attitudes. Under the modernist influences he has portrayed a galaxy of themes such as urban-life, sexuality, alienation etc. Among them ‘alienation’ and ‘belongingness’ are the most striking issues in the entire bulk of his poetry. Unlike Naipaul, Ezekiel always felt a sense of belonging to India though by birth he was an outsider by race. Even though he had to face bitter realities of alienation and discrimination from his own compatriots, India always was his motherland to which he was much attached. Even in his writings from London, India never seemed to him just a land of his ancestors as Naipaul always felt. Naipaul used India in his writings not to glorify her but to delineate her weaknesses, failings and thus portray her dark side. Though belonging to Jewish community, Ezekiel was primarily an Indian. What Ezekiel did was to satirise the evil practices, superstitions and ignorance of the Indian people in a humorous way as Pope and Dryden did in their age, and as R. K. Narayan, his friend, did in his novels.
To understand this aspect of the poetry of Ezekiel , the relation between literature and social history is to be understood. Taine did not mean race in the specific sense now common, but rather the collective cultural dispositions that govern everyone without their knowledge or consent. What differentiates individuals within this collective "race", for Taine, was milieu: the particular circumstances that distorted or developed the dispositions of a particular person. The "moment" is the accumulated experiences of that person, which Taine often expressed as momentum; to some later critics, however, Taine's conception of moment seemed to have more in common with Zeitgeist. Race, milieu and moment ,according to Taine, are the three principal motives or conditioning factors behind any work of art. Taine sought to establish a scientific approach to literature through the investigation of what created the individual who created the work of art.By “race” he meant the inherited disposition or temperament that persists stubbornly over thousands of years. By “milieu” he meant the circumstances or environment that modify the inherited racial disposition. By “moment” Taine meant the momentum of past and present cultural traditions. The literature of a culture, according to Taine, will show the most sensitive and unguarded displays of motive and the psychology of a people. Eli Siegel also in his Poetry As Happening regards this as something central to Aesthetic Realism. His poetry has all the elements of love, loneliness, lust, and creativity. Though Taine coined and popularized the phrase "race, milieu, et moment," the theory itself has roots in earlier attempts to understand the aesthetic object as a social product rather than a spontaneous creation of genius. Taine seems to have drawn heavily on the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder's ideas of volk (people) and nation in his own concept of race; the Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán has suggested that a crucial predecessor to Taine's idea was the work of Germaine de Staël on the relationship between art and society. Post modern literary critics are concerned with the relationship between literature and social history . Presence of India, even in its absence, can be felt in Indian writings. The writers and poets often deal with Indian cultures, myths, events ,experiences and relationships in their poetry. This is very much true of Ezekiel’s poetry. Nissim Ezekiel occupies a unique position among Indo-Anglian poets of post-Independence era.
His first book of poems is titled Time to Change (1952) and this is quite suggestive of Nissim Ezekiel's approach.P. Lal wrote, "After the death of Sri Aurobindo, Nissim Ezekiel is the first major voice that represents, more or less, the change of an era" . A horde of contemporary Indian-English poets follow the simple, conversational style of Ezekiel. Not only in the style but also in the selection of themes one finds the influence of Ezekiel in the contemporary Indian-English poets. . Ezekiel brought a sense of discipline, self-criticism and mastery to Indian English poetry. He was the first Indian poet to have such a professional attitude and became the pioneer of “New Poetry” by his greater variety and depth than any other poet of the Post-independence period.Like Eliot, Ezekiel too is a religious humanist. As for Eliot and most moderns like him, for Ezekiel too the religious element in literature reveals the writer’s moral concerns.Latter-Day Psalms is a culturally different text, written with a subaltern motive to recapture ‘space’ for the poet and his culture. The imperialistic growth of nationalism in the form of nativism got unprecedented growth in the southern states, especially in Maharashtra. The flourishing culture of Marathas narrowed down to imperialism and under ‘Shiv Sena,’ the racists began to wield imperial powers over thousands of non-Marathas in Bombay.It is against this political and historical ‘background’ or rather ‘foreground’ that Ezekiel, the poet of Mumbai, writes the poems in the collection Latter-Day Psalms.
In one poem Ezekiel wrote : “Cast off , scattered for a / Thousand years, where shall / We live in peace with our / Neighbours” . Ezekiel’s reference to Holocaust and Nazi Germany has greater significance in the political context. Bal Thackeray in many of his speeches and interviews compared the non-Marathas to the Jews with the veiled nuance that the German Holocaust was the Jews’ nemesis. Ezekiel deliberately deconstructs the imposed identity of Jews and their culture.He underlines the heterogeneity of local identity and strongly censures the nativist chauvinism with its inherent imperialistic designs. He loves the city despite its ugliness and wickedness. Ezekiel feels India and its problems in his nerves provided a voice to his rootedness in India.’Enterprise’ is an allegory of the pilgrimage theme with a suggestion of futility. The journey from the city to the hinterland is a metaphor for contrived change from frustration to fulfillment”. (Ethics and Identity, 5) Ezekiel rejects dejection because poetry is central to his life. He sees life as a quest for wholeness, for intellectual and spiritual satisfaction, for maturity. His poems show his desire to be away from distraction and obsessions of worldly life; but it is grounded in the physical and social reality. The major concern in his poem is how to live happily, calmly, and ethically as an integrated human being despite having to face so many personal difficulties and depressing moments. P. Lal and Dom Moraes have admitted the fact that Nissim Ezekiel was their poetic father.The other poets of the younger generation think that Ezekiel is perhaps the first Indian poet consistently to show Indian readers that craftsmanship is as important to a poem as its subject matter. . . . What Thomas Hardy was to England in the early twentieth century, Ezekiel is to India in the post-Independence era. In fact he is a great spirit to Indian poets in English for several decades.
Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee
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