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Nissim Ezekiel and his Poetic Corpus
by Bijay Kant Dubey
The Poet as a Faded Romantic and his poetry
− A Study in Faded Romanticism
“But residues of meaning still remain,
As darkest myths meander through the pain
Towards a final formula of light.
I, too, reject that clarity of sight:
What cannot be explained, do not explain.
The mundane language of the senses sings
Its own interpretations. Common things
Become, by virtue of their commonness,
An argument against their nakedness
That dies of cold to find the truth it brings.”
− Nissim Ezekiel in Philosophy
(Nissim Ezekiel, Collected Poems, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Third impression, 2007, p. 129)
our dear sister
is departing for foreign
in two three days,
we are meeting today
to wish her bon voyage.
You are all knowing, friends,
what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa.
I don’t mean only external sweetness
but internal sweetness.
Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling
even for no reason
but simply because she is feeling.”
− Nissim Ezekiel in Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S. (Ibid, p.190)
“A poet-rascal-clown was born,
The frightened child who would not eat
Or sleep, a boy of meagre bone.
He never learnt to fly a kite,
His borrowed top refused to spin.
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.”
− Nissim Ezekiel in Background, Casually (Ibid, p.179)
Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004) is one of those poets of modern Indian English poetry, more specially of the post-1947 period who are generally credited with giving some dimension and shape, literary vigour and verve to this nondescript evolving genre of literature, but his contribution is as such that the new critics even go to the extent calling him the father of modernism, which we are not sure of whether right to designate so or not. Whatever be their perception with regard to him, but he is definitely one who matters more for us and the readers of modern Indian English poetry. But it should be kept in mind that Harindranath had still been alive to continue as an old-timer. Had time favoured, Burjor Paymaster, Adi K.Sett and others would have grown. P.Lal reviewed the book of Burjor Paymaster negatively. Whatever be that, we do not want to discuss in a supposed to be a way of interpretation.
Born in a Bene-Israeli family, Nissim took his early education, graduated from Wilson College and even did his Master’s degree in English from Bombay University before moving to London. Just like R.Parthasarathy, he thought of becoming an Englishman, after settling there, but returned back to start his career fresh. He taught for some time as the professor of English in a college besides doing other jobs before moving to Bombay University English Dept., where he used to teach American literature and also served as the Head too for some time. Side by side he used to do freelance literary journalism even by contributing features and opinions, sending poems and editing literary journals which supported him most.
As a poet, Nissim had not been so much prolific, just went on peddling poems, trickling one after another, taking a long time of writing. The Bombayan circle of poets and critics supported each other and he too had been the editor of the Indian P.E.N. for quite a long time and this added to his name and fame. Though psychology and philosophy propped the things up, he has not so much to include in, as he felt almost outsiderish, an alienation feeling, which he used to suffer from. Though he dwelled in here, but was apart from Indian culture, philosophy, spirituality, thought and tradition, Indianism did not lure him at all, but instead of it was Indian and he could not banish it.
Long back in 1952, he dared to publish poetry in English, to put Indian English poetry on the world map through his Western acquaintances. He just went on exploring the theme of alienation, outsiderishness and so on. Something he too could not avoid instead of being a Jew, as his forefathers came from and settled here. Nissim is first of all a Bene-Isreali, secondly a Bombayan, thirdly a professor of Bombay, fourthly an editor, all these make up his mind and add to his poetic personality before being an ironist. It is true that being an outsider, he would have undergone something unnatural. But the cosmopolitan space would not stand as a barrier in coming to terms. But he chose to stay away like a foreigner, one of a different clime and environment. Instead of drawbacks and lacunae, he does the caricature in a better way, polished and good humoured, entertains and chuckles holding the tongue in cheek.
As a romantic, he is a faded romantic and his poetry a study in faded romanticism. The young man wants to love as well as repulses too and his retreat is not at all Henry Vaughanian, but quite different from. The poet in a very modern idiom distorts and derives from the Elizabethan song-writers, lyrists and poets. Side by side he is already under the influences of the modern poets. His love for the Gujarati girl, the Cuban dancer, talk of marriage and honeymoon and so on speak highly of all those things. Outwardly he shows it to be a great modern, but inwardly he is conservative and orthodox, when he talks of himself as a mugging Jew. In his poetry, hear we the music of the hoteliers and hostellers, English-medium educated boys and girls speaking in English and joking and this is the point of his difference with Aurobindo giving the sadhaka’s experiences, but disheartening with the fusion of Oriental and Occidental myths. His joys are the joys of partying and club-visiting. The poet too seems to have refreshed his spoken English at the airport. Wit and humour save him from being a faded artist. Though he may not be so colourful, but chuckles no doubt; keeps smiling critically and ironically. Maybe the persona or protagonist a lover or an addict!
A Woman Observed shows it how art-loving the poet is; an art critic as well as a visitor to art galleries, but under the pretext of that, he is sensual and bodily too, a lover of flesh and blood, the glow shine of it, reading Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra at midnight, hiding the text under a pillow, averting the gaze and calling it classical and artistic, yoga tending, demonstrating all his worldliness through the dharma-artha-kama-and-moksha motif,
“The pregnant woman
in the art gallery
stares at the nudes
that line the neutral wall:
frightens me. The fear
of nakedness offends
the eye. I am ashamed
to witness it. The life
in the woman’s belly
swelling her erotic lines
depresses me, the seed
and source denied by this
expression on her face.”
(Vilas Sarang, Edited by, Indian English Poetry Since 1950: An Anthology, Disha Books, Orient Longman, Hyderabad, Reprinted 2007, p.43)
We generally come across such a scene, but keep the things muffled. But Nissim makes us burst into laughter just like a naughty and indecent boy. The girl’s helplessness he understands it not. Under the pretext of visiting the art gallery, he sees not the paintings works, sketches and drawing on display, but the pregnant woman viewing the nudes. If this be the thing, he will definitely like to see the blues.
Philosophy and psychology are the assets of his poetry which go on adding to his poetic treasure. The first two stanzas from the poem Philosophy themselves certify it what the poet means to say hereunder,
“There is a place to which I often go,
Not by planning to, but by a flow
Away from all existence, to a cold
Lucidity, whose will is uncontrolled.
Here, the mills of God are never slow.
The landscape in its geological prime
Dissolves to show its quintessential slime.
A million stars are blotted out. I think
Of each historic passion as a blink
That happened to the sad eye of Time.”
(Collected Poems, Ibid, p.129)
Enterprise, Marriage and Night of the Scorpion are the three poems which have been included in V.K. Gokak’s anthology which appeared for the first time in 1970. Again, the second edition appeared in 1978. Night of The Scorpion as a poem is one of the most representative poems of Ezekiel where the scorpion is the spectacle of his faith and doubt,
“I remember the night my mother
was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him
to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison flash
of diabolic tail in the dark room --
he risked the rain again.
The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.”
(Vinayak Krishna Gokak Edited and Selected By, The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, Reprinted 2006, p. 268-69)
The poet remembers the night when his mother was stung by a scorpion and thereafter started the whole process of suffering and recovery to senses.
Nissim Ezekiel is one such poet who suffered the alienation feeling most, some sort of rootlessness and uneasiness in being here and the nativity question baffled him as for to be called Indian and he was not, Indian in sentiment, feeling and emotion, thought, culture and tradition racially, as his mind dwelt it afar. Indian philosophy, religion, metaphysics, spirituality, morality and ethics never lured him so with its Vedism, Upanishadism and Puranism, nor did the things of Indology and Oriental studies, as most of the modern Indian poets are today. A modern poet, he was of the post-1947 period, the post-fifties, as he started writing from then, a Bombayan city dweller of cosmopolitan Bombay, of airports and shipyards, living in Bombay and reaming from and the India of villages with its soul in them never the enchantment of Nissim, who chose to dwell far from and this took him to England and returned back to after spending three and a half years there, studying Philosophy at Birbeck College, London. Before embarking upon these solid texts, he also authored a few. Generally the critics begin with them not. A Time To Change (1952), Sixty Poems (1953), The Third (1958), The Unfinished Man (1960), The Exact Name (1965), Hymns in Darkness (1976), Latter-Day Psalms (1982), the works published from time to time, tell of his literary attainment into the poetic field laced with wit, irony and humour and caricature, writing about Indianness and its hollow ethics, society, culture and jokes, realistic portrayal and discussion and his understanding of India just like an outsider’s viewpoint.
A Maharashtrian Jew, instead of his attachment with the city of his birth, the growing island that saw he, he marked the nation as an alien insider and his view was outsiderish and if not, he was like the modern, hollow man, shallow man, exulting in urbanization, industrialization and commercialization, talking of city life and culture. Professorship and literary journalism continued side by side and this added to in getting name and fame.
A Time to Change, On an African Mask, Communication, The Double Horror, The Worm, An Affair, In Emptiness, History, Poetry, Something To Pursue, Morning Prayer, A Word for the Wind, The Great, Advice, Occupation, The Old Woman, And God Revealed, Commitment, Birth, To a Certain Lady, Failure, Year’s End, Planning, Reading, eclaration, Encounter, etc. are the poems which lie in incorporated in A Time To Change collection. Mostly the simple poems of as simple heart are therein, meaningful or meaningless in their stature. Modernity, modern life and culture is mainly the play of Ezekiel. There is nothing to feel deeply, just to say what it is in mind. A modern man’s ruminations are there in his poetry. He himself has stated it that as he is convent-educated so there is problem at all in taking English to be his own and it is his priority of being conversant with. The spoken English which he caricatures too is the poetic idiom of Nissim and he has never risen above this. Just in a simple way, he expresses the simple things. Private and personal, he goes describing in his own way. A Poem of Dedication, The Stone, The Crows, Song, Situation, Lines, A Visitor, Portrait, For William Carlos Williams, Marriage Poem, Boss, Two Nights of Love, etc. are the poems which figure in Sixty Poems collection. Portrait, Division, For Her, Waking, Admission, Memo for a Venture, Advice, Declaration, Tonight, etc. are the poems of The Third work of poetry. Counsel, Poverty Poem, Healers, Hangover, Jewish Wedding in Bombay, Minority Poem, etc. are the poems lie in included in Latter-Day Psalms collection of poems.
Nissim Ezekiel as a poet has evolved much in course of time as the works of then times suggest it. George Sampson’s The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature but edited with further chapters by R.C. Churchill in 1968 and other texts published during that period tell of it. Even J.N. Mundra and C.L. Sahni and W.R. Goodman’s literary essays books do not mention him as a new writer. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar too includes him in the later editions of his book otherwise some others figure in as the new poets. One may talk highly about these modern poets, but what it is more problematic is this that the books by these all Indian English poets are unavailable. The books of an Indian English poet cannot be found in the market and book-stalls. Leave those which have been promoted keeping in view advertisement and sale. Nissim Ezekiel had not been a great poet, but has become, as the critics too supported him and the Indians too had been in search of a poet-spokesman and if there had been other poets, we supported them not. After having discussed Shahid Suhrawardy, Manjeri S.Isvaran, P.R. Kaikini, Krishan Shungloo, Adi K.Sett and others, Prof. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar discusses Nissim and other companions in The New Poets chapter of Indian Writing in English.
Colloquial English, broken and conversational speech is the chief priority of the poet and he uses and distorts the idiom to create humour. In ‘Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.’, the poet too keeps smiling, not only Pushpa. He even goes to the airport to see her off, but we are not sure whether he does the ta-ta, bye-bye to her or not, whether the relatives saw him doing or not. Or, maybe there had been a hushed love-affair in between. If that is not, why will one see off going to the airport? But if to see it otherwise, just for courtesy’s sake, he went to see off the Gujarati girl speaking in English flying off to, departing for foreign with a Gujarati intonation of her own and Nissim heard her speaking or gave some time to her as himself had the foreign-returned experience with him.
Though he was a poet mostly, he wrote one slender book of playlets and just on the basis of that thinner stuff, we call him a playwright and this happens in Indian English writings as there is a dearth of and English is a foreign tongue and it is difficult to master a foreign language and to write in an alien tongue though many of the good oldies did not get a chance, nor did they dare to show as the age had not been in their favour. Then the people used to say, one should write in one’s own mother tongue, but the definition changed drastically in the changed scenario and context, Editor C.M. Mandy gave a chance to many of the new writers and their bad verses with a view to imparting strength and verve, to promote Indian English verse and Nissim too served as an assistant editor, later on edited Imprint and the Indian P.E.N. It took time in developing, Nissim went on trying to hone in his sporadically written verses, meagre in output, not at all bulky, some poems meaningful, some meaningless and as thus peddled he the stuffs of his own, applying modern contexts of deliberation, approach and assimilation, fact and fiction, wit and intellect. Psychology and philosophy added to his idea of new poetry and he tried to think in a novel way, Indian or un-Indian or otherwise. Had the copies of Imprint, the Indian P.E.N. and the Illustrated Weekly of India been with us, the things could have been detailed otherwise.
We generally ask with regard to him, how far Indian is he in his picturisation and presentation of India, Indian ethos and milieu, what is Indian in his poetry and it is the theme of Indianness, ironical and realistic, which finally bails him out and it is true he failed to understand the ethos of India, but has portrayed it realistically like a Western man, seeing and presenting and cracking the joke and humour was his spirit. Instead of his frailties and foibles, he was a great poet as he contributed to an evolving literature, came of age, added to realistically and ironically, bagged the Sahitya Akdemi Award in 1983 and the Padma Shri in 1988, a notable acknowledgement of his creative contribution, a formerly head of the dept of English of Mithibhai College from 1961 to 72 before switching over to Bombay Univ. English Dept. finally and taught for a short tenure at the Univ of Leeds and the Univ of Pondicherry as visiting professor, worked as broadcaster on literature and arts for some time for All Indian Radio; an art critic, an editor, a prose writer he was writing conversationally-inspired poetry in a very technical and spirited way.
An overview of Selected Prose presents before us the random reflections of Nissim Ezekiel. On Poetry, How a Poem is Written, To Revise or not to Revise, Poetry as Knowledge, Poetry and Philosophy, Philosophy of the Literary Man, On Art and Culture, Art Appreciation and Criticism: A Statement, Some Problems of Modern Indian Culture, Naipaul's India and Mine, On Life and Thought, Uncertain Certainties, On Books, etc. are the contents. This book bridges a gap in perception by arranging together five sections entitled ‘On Poetry,’ ‘On Philosophy,’ ‘On Art and Culture,’ ‘On Life and Thought,’ and ‘On Books.’
The moment when as we start reading Nissim Ezekiel, exactly at the same people start asking About his identity whether a foreigner as the name suggests it to be and thereafter if he resides, how much Indian is he in his theme and writing, relating to the selections of themes. Alienated from Indian ethos, myth and mysticism, philosophy, spirituality and metaphysics, nativity, historicity and narrativity, he explores the things of personal relationships in his own way rather than taking any interest in Indian stuffs. A Jew conventional and conservative, he plods in his way, barring the humours and jokes he does outside.
Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry suffers from a sense of belonging, whereto and for what? Who is he writing poetry, writing from where and for whom? His audience is a Western audience and he trying his hands to be deft and controlled as because has taken a long time in to evolve a corpus of his own. Just like an outsider, which even a foreigner does not, he viewed India and took it for an assessment. No traces of Indian philosophy, history, culture, spirituality, religion, ethics, theology, myth, mysticism, this gives you a picture of how much orthodox would he have been? How much negative in his outlook and presentation? Even if Aldous Huxley has written an essay named Benares as a visiting tourist, E.M. Forster in his A Passage to India and Matthew Arnold his essay On The Modern Element In Literature quoting from and starting with a quote of the on-going dialogue between Pourna and Buddha, but Nissim takes India just as a conservative fellow and there is minorityism. You live in India and you cannot sing of her, how can it be? There must be something of the culture of the land, ancient thought and tradition of it which is perhaps missing in him. He has of course depicted a modern India presented in all its ugliness, bare realism just for humour’s sake, irony and wit. The heart of ancient India, Nissim could not understand, the rock-built temples with the nautch girls or hosts saying with the folded hands, ‘Swagatam’ (Welcome). The heartbeat of modern India, urban and metropolitan may be it there in him which he has come to mark in free mix-ups, parties, clubs, theatres, cinema halls, parks, platforms, airports, marketing complexes, office places and other busy and entertainment establishments. At least Nissim could have changed his heart. But something of karma-dharma, bhoga and the path of karma-yoga definitely struck him as he talks of these in a muffled voice.
Enterprise is the name of the poem where the poet speaking of a joint venture, the earlier measured successes and gained through and milestones reached in a shorter time, results showing for future-time success stories, but the same succumbs to human frailty, weakness, suspense and doubt,
It started as a pilgrimage
Exalting minds and making all
The burdens light. The second stage
Explored but did not test the call.
The sun beat down to match our rage.
(V.K.Gokak, edited, ibid, p. 267)
The third stanza shows the fading of exaltation and exhilaration; the fading of all romance and colouring,
But when the differences arose
On how to cross a desert patch,
We lost a friend whose stylish prose
Was quite the best of all our batch.
A shadow falls on us − and grows.
All the dreams seen too vanish away finally. The enterprise which came off as per their expectation and high hope tottered and fell down miserably. Just for human competition, doubt, suspense, enmity, malice and rivalry, the noble edifice which was began, disintegrated that, showing it in full, united we stand and divided we fall. Differences in opinion finished it all what it was good. The dreams shattered as glass pieces is the best image to present it.
Here in this stanza from Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher, he compares poetry to bird-watching and love-making,
“To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering −
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.”
(K.S.Ramamurti, Edited, Twenty-five Indian Poets in English, Macmillan India Limited, Reprinted 1996, p.127)
Poetry has here born out of D.H.Lawrence’s love of Lady Chatterley’sLover and Salim Ali’s love of ornithology. Similarly the new poet seems to be waiting for the best words to come to, going into the footsteps of Coleridge or taking opium.
There is something of Hindu philosophy of life, as that of bhoga and karma hereunder when the poet talks of the previous sin and its mitigation through the speeches of the gathering crowds in Night of The Scorpion,
“May he sit still, they said
May the sins of your previous birth
be burned away tonight, they said.
May your suffering decrease
the misfortunes of your next birth, they said.
May the sum of all evil
balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good
become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh
of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around
on the floor with my mother in the centre,
the peace of understanding on each face.”
(V.K. Gokak, The Golden Treasury, ibid, p.269)
The Roman mob of Julius Caesar not, nor the Jewish mob, but the villagerly Hindu mob of Night of the Scorpion tell the things here.
The first two stanzas from the poem Marriage tell of the jocund presentation and picturisation of the poet, what it happens in love and marriage, be it a love-marriage or an arranged marriage, the heart in heart talks and the hand in hand moves, like the people feeling electro-magnetic sensations and the impressions forming,
"Lovers when they marry face
Eternity with touching grace,
Complacent at being fated
Never to be separated.
The bride is always pretty, the groom
A lucky man. The darkened room
Roars out the joy of flesh and blood.
The use of nakedness is good."
(V.K. Gokak, ibid, p.268)
Nissim is a master love-maker, a romancer chuckling in love, under the impact of it, but not openly, in a subdued tone of expression. He cannot propose before, just in the dark room of the studio he can reflect over the images.
Nissim as a lover is Hamletian, to be or not to be, between the two horns of a dilemma, should he love or not. Such a wavering is not good at all. Somewhere the things of love-marriage please him and somewhere those of an arranged marriage through a match-maker. We do not know what sort of man he is!
‘The Couple’ as a definitely makes a good reading, but the love-talk relates to man-woman relationship, as the characters of D.H. Lawence’s do, as the drunk man and woman whisper in the Araby fair of James Joyce at midnight and the protagonist who has arrived late feeling nonplussed to see it all and that is why leaving the place in a huff,
"You are a wonderful woman, he said,
and she laughed happily,
having heard it before from many men
all trapped in the desire
to see her naked
and to know how she surrendered
who was so hard and vain.
In that moment of mutual deception,
she was truly quite beautiful
and almost lovable.
She did it prettily enough,
a trick or two."
(Vilas Sarang, Edited, ibid, p.44)
A modern poet of the modern age, he takes the things in his own stride. Modernity and the sense of modernism is the key-word of his poetry and he basks in that sunshine. Had he not been to England, had he not got his education in a convent school and had the opportunities in journalism been not, he could not have reached the pinnacles of glory. Time, situation and circumstance too had been a factor behind his growth and development. Bombay too offered the best possible scopes to the poet through its cosmopolitanism and marine connectivity. A poem to Nissim is an episode finished in an hour or two, something said precisely or maybe it something more than that. His history of idea is like the one Daruwalla holds it and to define in such a way is no doubt an extraordinary penetration. Sometimes he turns theological and does the prayer, but an egoist’s prayer cannot enlighten upon so much and the psalms he talks are not the Longfellowian psalms of life. Nissim is not a yogi, but a bhogi doing the prayer.
His sense of humour and caricature is there again in the poem named The Professor,
“Remember me? I am Professor Sheth.
Once I taught you geography. Now
I am retired, though my health is good.
My wife died some years back.
By God's grace, all my children
Are well settled in life.
One is Sales Manager,
One is Bank Manager,
Both have cars.”
(Collected Poems, ibid, p.238)
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Bijay Kant Dubey
In The Cinema Hall Nissim And His Beloved Talking
In the cinema hall, Nissim and his beloved talking,
Talking with and smiling,
He saying wonderful to her,
She saying wonderful to him,
Both of them in love,
Have come to the hall
Under the pretext of going
To the college
Or exchanging books and notes.
Nissim and his beloved seeing it
With the fall of the curtain,
The lights off,
The reels to rotate
And to be projected
Through the flash light,
The trailer showing the hero and the heroine
And falling in love
To see her
The villain hatching conspiracies,
Planning for a fall
Like the communists for a coup
And Ravana and Duryodhana
But the heroine wanting him,
The hero facing all that boldly
Whatever come that
And at some romantic scene kissing the heroine
Which he enjoying it most,
Very-very pleasing to Nissim
Wanting to fall in love
But retreating back to
Thinking himself a minority community man,
An orthodox and mugging Jew.
While taking the evening walk,
Nissim meeting her in the park
How do you do,
How do you do, ma’m
Smiling to see the girl,
His lady love
Met strangely not,
But in a planned way
As per time given to,
Oh, Nissim the lover
With the subdued feelings of love,
A faded romantic in essence,
Will love and say to not,
Will promise, promise,
Not to keep it up!
Bye-bye, bye-bye, Nissim,
The girl smiling and waving at
And Nissim looking at blankly
To feel it,
How smiley and beautiful is she,
How lovely to look at!
Hello, hi, nice to meet you,
Waving at and greeting him
And Nissim chuckling within,
O, a modern girl is greeting him,
All looking in wonder and astonishment!
Nissim saying wonderful to the girl
And the girl saying wonderful to Nissim,
Who is actually wonderful,
Nissim taking her to the park, the restaurant,
The mall and the shopping complex,
Nissim is a convent boy
With the element of a hosteller and a hotelier,
An Indian trying to be modern
Or priding over the sense of modernity,
Giving tips in
As to how to be modern and courteous,
How to say please and thank you,
How to take tea!
Nissim priding over his neck tie,
Shirt and pants,
Trying to improve in spoken English
As for to converse in public
That he knows English,
Can speak like the sahibs!
Nissim seeing the face of the girl
And the girl seeing the face of Ezekiel
But romancing stealthily
Like an Indian.
On her birthday, giving a gift
Or getting to on his,
Attending the marriage party
Of the friend,
Sometimes thinking of saving money
As for giving a tea party
Instead of a feast,
Talking of the buffet system,
Saving of food from being wasted
And miserly too
Which but the Indian gourmets and gluttons repenting
As after giving the stunt of sit-ups,
They are ever ready to beat again,
Taking a challenge
And eating food in the countryside feasts
Of the other men
To push in debt
And get the properties sold for prestige
And maintenance of the social custom of reception
And the villager gluttons can
Threatening townsmanly gas and acidity.
The birthday gift packs of Nissim looking beautiful
But nothing substantial in them,
Just smaller and low-priced things are therein,
Covered up so beautifully
With beautiful glazy papers
Which the party-giver sad to see and note in later
As for future returns
But finally accepting it all
Thanking for at least their presence.
Nissim learning to say,
Bye-bye, goodbye, see you again,
Thank you, so nice of you,
Nice to meet you,
I like it, I love it,
Happy new year to you,
Happy new year to you,
Good morning, good day,
Good afternoon, good evening,
A villagerly Indian learning English,
Trying to speak in English,
Not a sahib,
But a brown sahib,
People talking about in villages
How he speaks in English,
A Gandhiji in London
In pants and shirt
The English etiquette and manners,
With a red rose
On his coat button,
Washed and coming from Switzerland.
I took her to a cinema, we saw
The lovers kiss, we saw the jealous man
With subtle comradeship upset their plan
And how their love compelled him to withdraw.
----Nissim Ezekiel in the poem ‘An Affair’ from A Time To Change collection
(Nissim Ezekiel, Collected Poems, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, Third impression, 2007, p. 11)
Between the acts of wedded love
A quieter passion flows,
Which keeps the nuptial pattern firm
As passion comes and goes,
And in the soil of wedded love
Rears a white rose.
----In the poem ‘Marriage Poem’ taken from Sixty Poems collection
People have discussed Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004) in their own way, taking his poetry from the first modern poet point of view, making his tryst with destiny in the post-independence period, calling him the beginner of modernism, though there is nothing like that as because K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar himself refers to as one of the new poets and Nissim has been included in ‘The New Poets’ chapter of Indian Writing in English, taking together Shahid Suhrawardy, Manjeri S.Isvaran, P.R.Kaikini, Krishan Shungloo and others even before him. In the beginning, he too like Lal and others used to send poems to C.R.Mandy as for giving a breakthrough in the issues of the Illustarted Weekly of India, which the editor reported to Iyengar by saying that he felt corroded with the bad quality of the verses written by the Indians, but had been still hopeful of getting a talent. Even before Nissim there had been Tagore, Aurobindo and Harindrananth to show the traits of modernism. Apart from them, some were there to make us felt their presence. If we go through the texts of the 1960’s, they will themselves speak of the position. Indian English poetry then had been nowhere. Just the people used to read them in the literary essays section and we used to waver between Indo-Anglian or Indo-Anglican. If we turn over the older syllabuses, we shall come to mark. M.K.Naik’s A History of Indian English Literature itself appeared in 1980 and the first prize ever to an Indian English poet went to Jayanta Mahapatra as for Relationship in 1980. Nissim too had been a writer of some middle order, but evolved in due course of time. It is also true side by side that journalism kept him alive and he felt stimulated from time to time as for being a Bomabayan. Even after the Nobel to Tagore, the men on the syllabus committee for English in different universities wavered in prescribing the poems from Gitanjali to M.A. students, barring sporadic and stray instances. Virtually, from the eighties or the nineties, we have started to keep it going. Something it has been done quite under the advice and suggestion given by the UGC, its peer teams and committees.
Several things have gone into the making of Nissim Ezekiel the poet and his growth and development as a writer of Indian verse. The first is he received his education from a convent school which he speaks of and later on moved to England for a brief stay and returned back to as it happened with R.Parthasarathy. Secondly, he had been a modern man, a Bombayan who grew up in the negation of Aurobindo and his trends. Thirdly, he was a teacher of Bombay University. Fourthly, a freelancer he was and an editor of literary journals. But no other poet is questioned, interrogated so much as he is in his delineation, picturisation and perusal of India, Indian scenes, sites and landscapes. This is as because he fails to understand the myth and psyche of mother India, just views her from a distance, like an alien insider with his outsiderish feeling and emotion. The main thing of being aloof or separated from is his being a Maharashtrian Jew. He has nothing to do with Indian philosohy, spirituality, religion, ethics, morality and metaphysics. The poet as a modern man of the city talks of love marriage, tea parties, honeymoon, love affairs, picnics, outings, valedictions and so on. Outwardly, he appears to be modern, frank and free, but is conservative and orthodox.
There were poets even before Nissim Ezekiel and the tradition has been continuing since, not from him. Think of the time when Ezekiel was not. Just suppose it, feel the vacuum. Many used to write definitely, but dared not publish, as an Indian can be a scholar of English but can never be a Shakespeare, similarly an Englishman can be a scholar of Hindi but can never be a Soor or Tulsi, used to hold true. One should write in one’s own mother tongue? Why to choose the foreign language as the medium of expression? An English woman in a sari used to click before. Even Indian English poetry passed through different tests and ordeals, should it be called Anglo-Indian, Indo-Anglican, Indo-Anglian, Indian poetry in English or Indian English poetry? People debated and discussed over, should the Indians write in English? Finally, the theme of Indianness, a term of some larger connotation came to rescue it. Such a thing was asked in connection with Ezekiel as he had had nothing to do with Indian thought, culture, tradition and philosophy; spirituality, metaphysics and theology. Nissim himself refutes the poetry of Aurobindo and calls himself a convent educated boy writing in English.
On finding none around to publish the books, P.Lal and his friends founded the Writers’ Workshop, Calcutta. Nissim too got the support and benefit from the establishment. A poet of the Bombayan circle of critics, he has definitely got the support of the people otherwise he would not have scaled what we we presume it today. Even in Advanced Literary Essays (Prakash Book Depot, Bareilly, 1961) by Prof.J.N.Mundra and Prof.C.L.Sahni and Quintessence of Literary Essays by W.R.Goodman (Doaba House, New Delhi 1968), we do not find the names of Nissim, Kamala, Jayanta, Ramanujan, Adil and Daruwalla. In Mundra’s book, one can see the names of B.Rajan, Krishan Shungloo, Subho Tagore, Sudhindranath Dutt, V.N.Bhushan, Cyril Modak, Nilima Devi and Adi K. Sett as new poets. In the anthology of poetry, The Golden Treasury of Indo-Anglian Poetry, published from Sahitya Akademi in 1970, Prof. V.K.Gokak presents the poets on a broader scale rather than concentrating on him merely as the harbinger of modernism in Indian English poetry.
Nissim is a poet of the urban space, modern city life and thought-content. A modern hollow man, he can relate to in that way quite easily. Just love and human relationship form the poetic crux of his story. To laugh at, caricature and joke is the job of the poet and he chuckles merely. A faded romantic, he is not so colourful. He has the desire within to fall in love, but draws the steps back too, as societal rigidity and community obligation continue to nourish him otherwise. A Jew he cannot change himself rather than adhering to it, never can imagine of mixing as the ghettos continue to bind him. He beats the band of love-mariage, but consummates it not and he marries as per arranged lines. India too had been in search of modern poets and we got it in their voices. But modernism is not so easy to be delved deep, as because it comes not poetically, but appliances, apparatuses, comforts, experiences, discoveries, inventions, medicines, fashions, designs, spirits and times too have something to say to and to add to. Logic, reason, fact and fiction have dispelled the darkness within. Humanism, liberalism and development too have the stories to tell them. It has definitely taken time in making the people modern one by one.
If one goes through the poems of Nissim Ezekiel, one may come to mark the influences of the English poets which he is so heavily under, as for example the Elizabethan sonneteers and lyric writers, the metaphysicals, the romantics, the Victorians and the moderns may be referred to. Thomas Wyatt, Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, etc. are some of them whose influences can be definitely felt and marked upon his poetry. The influence of Andrew Marvell, John Milton, George Herbert, John Donne and others can be marked in his psalms. His conversational style has something to owe to T.S.Eliot and Walt Whitman, but his caricature takes to a different plane. The grammar of poesy is certainly not the chief priority of the poet as he intends it not on dabbling in rhetoric and prosody. He just goes on putting them in a free-flowing verse.
In the fifities, he started to publish, but that could not make a way so easily and he took time in growing up, getting famed. As a poet, he went on evolving and substantiating his stance as because had not been so prolific as we think think of now. Ones or twos added to his poetic corpus. He was definitely not a classicist, scholarly in his write-up, but a modern moving along modern life and culture, city living and urbanity, keeping pace with and this added to his corpus, benefited him in a befitting way. Man and his manners, modern life and society, thought and culture had been the topic of his perusal and he perused that too. Irony was his forte; humour the chief property and he continued to regale with these. The India of rural spaces and scapes, the hamlets dark, thinly populated and scattered across a vast stretch of the land, dotting it with their own solitude and away from being human haunt could not draw his pen towards and he felt helpless in taking to. He was blind to the treasure trove of India, its ancient temples and rich legacy of the land, Indian heritage and culture. We often question with regard to him, how far Indian he is and the quest for identity leaves him not behind. He is no doubt a peculiar type of poet, commemorative of private and personal ethics and reflection.
There is nothing as that to look for sublimity in him. The cinema hall, the theatre, the park, the airport, the dockyard, the picnic spot, the restaurant, the salon, the club and the shopping complex, this is the hub of his city-centric poetry. A poet of Bombay, the ever growing city with the pace of time, the metropolitan to the mega city, engages him. He is a poet of birthday gifts, marriage parties, love letters and goodbye parties. Please, thank you, good morning, good evening, good night, kindly, bye-bye, ta-ta, see you again, etc. are the things of his etiquette and mannerism. The poet as an observer likes to visit the art galleries, put on display and there he may view the pregnant woman seeing the nudes and feeling ashamed of; in the cinema hall, he will like to propose before, but faltering to kiss and at the hotel the semi-nude of the Cuban dancer will come to the rescue of his delight. I love you, I like you, these are the terms recurring in variety and the poet seems to be inclined after. Valentine cards and roses, bouquets of flowers, new year greeting cards, wedding bells jingling and he going with the gifts, all these things lie in muted well. The boyfriend, the girlfriend and the love story, a quest after beauty, an inclination for and infatuation with, the revellings into the realms of fancy and imagination add to his poetic dimension. The best of the hotels and the hostels he seeks to derive from and to give to. An art critic, he can apply modern art to poetry writing.
In the poem, A Woman Obseved, which happens to be in The Exact Name, he pictures a pregnant woman viewing the nudes at the art gallery:
I watch her sadly as
she leaves the place, my eyes
embracing all that sensual
movement bursting through the dress.
(Collected Poems, ibid, p.140)
Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd To His Love, Edmund Spenser’s One Day I Wrote Her Name, Sir Philip Sidney’s Loving in Truth, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s And Wilt Thou Leave Me Thus? and Forget Not Yet , Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress, John Donne’s The Sun Rising, etc. seem to take the canvas away from him and he dwells far, into the realms of love and its dreams and promises.
Holding the tongue in cheek, Nissim chuckles, never to let them into guffaws, just keeps beaming with joy, discerning it all, really a critical person. Maybe it that he is not scholastic, pedantic, classical and great from the old and medieval point of view, but is definitely a great poet, a classical romantic he is no doubt, if to review that from a different perspective of delving. The things which are easily accessible in the English poets are predominant in him and he excels in assimilating them. A romantic poet he is, but differently, without a deceptive appearance. Outwardly, he appears to be ludicrous, humorous, ironical and satiric, pontifical and hypocritical, but from the inward within of his, he is but highly philosophical and metaphysical. It is difficult to judge a talent like that of Ezekiel as because sometimes he appears to be too much trite and hackneyed, but is not so at all.
Sometimes the ordariness of expression takes us aback, sometimes the irony of conversational English punctuated by a foreign learner’s desire to learn and practice spoken English, which is but ludicrous English, one committing mistakes to be proficient in. Such a thing Somerset Maugham too speaks about in his prose-piece, Learning to Write. Several stenos and clerks too turn into knowledgeable persons in the long run. Many lawyers too without having a base in English learn to pefect it in the end. Too much erring and instead of it, the forcible continuation too teaches us awkwardly to be dextetous. Nissim should also take a note of it that the geography department teacher’s somehow carried on English is just the one side of the picture while on the other many of our English tachers fail to deliver in English, speak hesitatingly, haltingly, who later on may take over as or turn into university heads and good professors of English, guides and resource persons.
Nissim’s poetry is an exercise in spoken English, one practising, taking the tips to learn it, one following how do the people use and apply it and that too where in India. English is used in getting the cases and complaints lodged; the diaries being entered into at the police station and they writing in their own way, whatever pidgin-English coming into the mind, the policemen entering into, erring to perfect it. The school, the college, the court campus and all other offices are the places where it is applied in. Some trying to be oversmart too like to converse in English. To use a few English words once was a matter of pride. Even the illiterate villagers used to appreciate and talk of. Even the illiterate
peons of the convent schools too in the long run develop their common sense as for understanding the speech. Just through the patriot and his usage of English, Nissim is caricaturing the monkeyish disciples of the iconic, father-figure, Mahatma Gandhi. The British prisoners, but our freedom fighters, in their aping of Gandhi and Gandhism, sometimes seem to have befooled. Some of them had not been freedom fighters, but turned they into as for pension. Some of them were very blunt and were lathi-wielding. Had they been not aggressive, the English too would not have left, is also the other side of the truth. Specially, the half-wits, the half-learned fellows are the butts of his humour. While discussing Nissim’s poems centring round the half-learned people’s English, it comes to the fore, the little-read fathers-in-law taking the interview of the simple and rural girls, asking them, what’s your father’s name, the composition of tea-making and others to be responded back in broken English. Sometimes even the street roamers and loafers, who do not like to read and write, but go on roaming, passing time and spending father’s money, too like to perform well, starting their career from the profession of a salesman or a business executive, an agent of a company or a medical representative.
While reading the poem, Marriage, several things come to the mind’s plane, as such, what is love, what is marriage and what the workings of these. Perhaps love does not remain the same love started earlier. Sacred and sacrosanct love, promised with never to part ways, gets care-worn, anxiety-ridden in due course of time and its duration. Situations and circumstances perturb and perplex it. Human lust and greed unquenchable and hankering after more, propelled by ever changing Nature, seem to take to its own recourse. Similar is the case with husband and wife, lover and beloved, bride and bridegroom. In the sensual and sensuous pleasures of man, lie in the stories of man’s temptation and fall from heaven and Cain’s mark. For sometime, one may feel blissful, but the things which go on affecting will continue to work for fissure and fission and this is the way of the world and of man. Man will definitely get lured towards Eve; they will take the forbidden fruit and be expelled from the garden of bliss and paradise. What Nissim here seeks to say is the temptation for gold, wine and beauty. Nissim’s poem Marriage is almost like Joyce’s sketch, Araby. Something of the daydreaming of Lamb’s Dream Children is here. Just like a newly modern boy, as Gandhiji once used to copy the English in dress, manner and etiquette, Nissim too tries to do that. There is a fascination for Christian life and love, their attitude and manner. His phraseology actually moves around love affair, honeymoon, birthday party and a visit to the cinema hall. Once upon a time people used to rush in to the cinema halls and many a love-story used to culminate and coincide with thereon. Many a college girl, in a tabooed society of ours, used to meet under the pretext of exchanging books and notes. Nissim as a poet too is a lover of this type who will like to visit the cinema hall to share the unsaid feelings of the heart. He just keeps dreaming about love-affair, but can never consummate it.
In the poem, The Couple, the lover appears wonderful to the beloved and vice versa which is no doubt a novel expression to take us by storm. Both of them remain glued to each other, which is but magnetic attraction. Nissim as a modern age city boy has the idea of all that it happens in love. The co-educational convent schools are the best place to study and experience it. Apart from it, a Bombayan he has experience of making love in the park and the garden. Valentine’s Day is specific in this regard, but who will be the Valentine of Nissim?
The first stanza from The Couple may be quoted to illustrate the point:
Indolence and arrogance
were rooted in her primal will,
a woman to fear, not to love,
yet he made love to her
(who can say he loved her?)
and damn the consequences.
(Vilas Sarang, Edited by, Indian English Poetry Since 1950: An Anthology, Disha Books, Orient Longman, Hyderabad, Reprinted 2007, p.44)
The last stanza of the poem throws the light on the poem:
To love her was impossible,
to abandon her unthinkable.
He had to make love to her,
a charade of passion and possession
in which some truth was found in her.
By calling her wonderful, Nissim just wants to make her puff with pride and to look back in amazement when the bird gets netted or trapped. The poet has overpraised her to win over and this none can do but a modern like Nissim himself. Both of them keep saying to each other, the beloved hearing it and smiling, which God knows it, who is actually wonderful? One can learn the tactics of love-making from him. How clever is he!
Nissim is a master poet of spoken English and its nuances, specially Indian English speech and accent is the thing of his delineation and he seeks to derive from it, taking it to be the matter of poetry. It is a mistake with the Indians that they like to master grammar rather than taking exercises in language. Such a tendency has been continuing from Panini and his texts. A strict grammarian cannot be a good literary man.
In the poem, which he is so acclaimed for, namely Night of The Scorpion, the poet recrerates an Indian scene, where his mother stung by a scorpion lies unconscious and writhing in pain and burning sensation. The poet sees her so helpless before together with the coming and going peasants. The village folks with the lamps burning dimly and their shadows cast before and the steady rains continuing in for sometime more picture the canvas of the poem. The incessant rains perhaps have forced the scorpion to crawl beneath a knapsack and taking a chance bit it. People search for the creature, but they fail to trace. This is as usual which takes place in every village home.
After the bite, the exorcists and herbalists make a way into the scene. With the village folks in the background as the audience, the mother at the centre of all activity, the herbalist applies the herbal paste to chill and comfort the bite. The priestly men try to tame the poison through mantric incantation while his father, a sceptic and a rationalist applies the paraffin oil and gives a lit match stick to it. The flames feed upon for a while. In the midst of all this, one can overhear the people talking of bhoga, we mean suffering. Such a thing it had been in her previous karma and now it has got lessened. Someone ends on a note of benediction that it is a harbinger of the lessening of sin if be any in the next birth. There is an Indian calculation of past karma and dharma in Night of The Scorpion poem and here one can find it how he is at home in the use of indirect Indianness.
Nissim as an observer holds a low profile, he goes on marking all this with his mother at the centre of all that hectic activity and the specialists treating in their own way and the well-wishers and neighbours wishing Godspeed and recovery while the villain at large, we mean the wicked scorpion with the diabolic tail, the catalist of all that absconding, whom the curses even cannot curse. Nissim as a Jewish man marks the Indian scene and happening in the aftermath of a scorpion bite in the poem, Night of The Scorpion.
In the poem, Background, Casually, the poet in a funny way tries to introduce himself, by calling, how ‘A poet-rascal-clown was born’, one of lean and thin structure, he makes a way through the diverse majority communities, his being a mugging Jew, whom the Christians will take otherwise, the Hindus in their own. As a boy, he failed to spin a top, nor could he fly the kites so smoothly. This brings enough joy for him to feel, be it the developed or undeveloped place, he is happy to be where he is now.
One from from Shanwar Teli caste, Saturday oil-presser caste, his experience tells a different tale, how did the hooded bullocks make the rounds as for crushing seeds for bread. Their ancestors took to oil pressing soon after their arrival in India. A rabbi-saint, instead of his wish or trial, he can never be, he is what he ahd to be. Nissim Ezekiel’s Background, Casually is more powerful and beautiful than that of Kamala Das’ An Introduction. To turn and twist and present the things is the job of Nissim and he does it so eloquently. To take the matters lightly and jocularly and to regale and to recreate is his poetic art, craft and technique.
Nissim seems to be serving, offering Indian chutney or European sauce and this can be felt in his poem Goodbye Party For Miss Pushpa T. S., as it is in other poems too. God knows, who is this Pushpa? Is she a sister or a girl of acquaintance in disguise? Nissim all the time keeps us in the dark with regard to identity, letting it go, changing the topic quite often to bemuse us. Here, just using coming, going, eating or sleeping, he recreates the whole scene. Pushpa is going to foreign and he is there to see her off. Pushpa is smiling and smiling to hear the English of Nissim as and when he says it that there is not only external sweetness in her, but some internal sweetness too is therein. We do not know it if the others have found or not, but he is good at pumping and puncturing. He can make one climb the palm tree and drink juice and at the same time has the guts of cutting the tree underneath. The juice-taker will come to feel what lies in the pleasure of taking at the cost of excitement.
To read Nissim Ezekiel is to smile sometimes, burst into a laughter all alone. Peculiar things he says them in a peculiar and humourous way. There is of course something of a commentator or an advertiser or an anchorman in him; an announcer he can recreate us entertainingly. Even if one asks him to pray or keep silence for a few moments by closing the eyes, he cannot keep still rather will make you burst into a laughter through his antics and activities.
The conservative husbands of the purdahwalli wives will themselves will love to read him if they get a chance to go through his verses, as for example, the poem entitled In India, taken from The Exact Name :
The wives of India sit apart.
They do not drink,
they do not talk,
of course, they do not kiss.
The men are quite at home
among the foreign styles
(what fun the flirting is!)
I myself, decorously,
press a thigh or two in sly innocence.
The party is a great success.
( Collected Poems, p.133)
To read Nissim Ezekiel is to come to feel it that he is not a yogi, but a bhogi and whoever claims it to be solely, it is really difficult to be. God knows, who is whose guru? Sometimes even the saints fail to keep themselves in control; we mean the pseudo-sadhus and their leaked in stories of life. In one poem, the poet sees the world full of girls and poetry as the language of lovers and he finding it in his prosaic poetry and the poem is none but The Language of Lovers for our kind pereusal. Under the pretext of putting the words through the mouth of a foolish critic, he clears the things of his heart tactically. The Egoists’ Prayers even twist and turn the dialogues taking place between him and God and it is quite clear that he can never be devout and dutiful as the personal works are too many to devote to and he is definitely not one among the chosen few to be mindful of his duties.