INDIANNESS IN NISSIM EZEKIEL’S POETRY
G. Soma Seshu
Nissim Ezekiel, the well-known Poet of India passed away very recently.
He was a source of inspiration to many Poets of Indian writing in English.
May his soul rest in peace.
Nissim Ezekiel is one of the most popular and eminent Indian poets of the Post-Independence Era. Unlike the earlier poets, he is a poet of urban landscape employing irony and wit to expose the various ugly aspects of city life with its squalid surroundings, slums, loneliness, neurosis and frustration. The city is “a living hell” and “Like a passion burns.” Unlike Baudlaire’s dry self-lacerating despair, Ezekiel is sympathetic but scrutinizing. He loves the city despite its ugliness and thus adopts a paradoxical approach bringing together contrary attitudes and harmonizing them.
In the poem “Island” he frankly confesses though Bombay is a pleasure island of “slums and skyscrapers”.
“I cannot leave the island
I was born here and belong
Even now a host of miracles
Hurries me to daily business——”
As a typical Indian Poet, he vividly portrays the sufferings and problems of the common people. In “India” and “Entertainment” the poverty of people is movingly picturised.
As a poet of human relations Ezekiel raises or sublimates the common place and ordinary lives and incidents to the level of highest poetry. In “Night of the Scorpion” he juxtaposes in an effective way the various responses of typical Indian villagers restricted by their superstitions and belief in destiny. In “Boss” the mechanical life of a big official is described in terms of mechanical objects. In “The Truth about Dhanya” a typical Indian Beggar is portrayed.
“His old skin/is like the ground
on which he sleeps/
So, also his rags.”
The great human agony, the official indifference and apathy for the victims of the flood are highlighted with a touch of satire in “The Truth about the Floods”. Ezekiel’s most famous volume of poems. “The Unfinished man” reveals him as a great poet of human relations. In “A poem of Dedication”, which may be regarded as the poet’s manifesto, he expresses his modest objectives without aspiring for God-Like super human powers.
“I do not want the Yogi’s concentration
I do not want the perfect charity
Of saints or the tyrant’s endless power
I want a human balance humanly
The poet expresses his aversion for hypocrisy and pretensions in every field including religion and poetry. In “Rural Site” the exploitation of superstitious villagers is depicted. The hypocrisy of Indian gurus and Saints is revealed in “Guru”. In “The Visitor” the poet ridicules the Indian Superstition about the cawing of the crow and drives home the truth that miracles do not take place in real word. His disgust for dull and stupid conversation of the so-called polite society without genuine feeling is clearly brought out in poems like “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.” He denounces mass civilization and regrets for the loss of minority and folk cultures with their unique and distinct features.
Unlike other Indian poets who exult in religious mysticism, Ezekiel prefers “a poetry of human expression.” Though he was an atheist and rationalist from 1942 to 1967, in April 1967 he had his first LSD trip - the voyage of discovery to the centre of life.” In his later poetry the religious feelings found expression without vague mysticism. Like Eliot he is a religious humanist deeply involved with moral concerns rather than outward show of orthodox devotion. Ezekiel thinks that spiritual growth comes only when man has liberated himself from all falsities, shams and pretensions. In this aspect he is one of the modern Indian poets who view religion in broader moral perspective.
The “Poster Poems” and “Hymns in darkness” the poet’s mood is one of reverence and submission. The poet looks to God for the resolution of all his doubts and problems. He speaks to God informally like a friend with an undertone of mocking and flippancy.
“From this human way of life
Who can rescue man
If not his maker?
Do thy duty, Lord.
Confiscate my passport, Lord,
I do not want to go abroad
Let me find my song
Where I belong.
Like other modern Indian poets, Ezekiel treats the theme of love and sex in a bold and frank manner. As Linda Hess says “He is a poet of the body…who has explored sexual love in all its myriad forms and varieties, but always there is an attempt to transcend the physical act of sex and to transform it into something spiritual, something nobler and higher….” Like Donne and other metaphysical poets he tries to depict the tension between the opposite poles of physical and spiritual love which ultimately finds fulfilment in lasting relationship of domestic harmony. According to Ezekiel life is made up of compromises. In “Declaration” he shows a Donne-like concern for the body and stresses that our natural instincts and impulses must be gratified. He is both a Psychologist and a poet of the body.
Though Ezekiel has been criticized as being not authentically Indian on account of his Jewish background, and urban outlook, he could see the essential India in the urban climate of Bombay where he was born and brought up. As he said the Indian writers “Have to make a synthesis between ancient and modern cultures”. In his own poems he tried to achieve a remarkable cultural synthesis between the Jewish and the Indian, the western and the Eastern, and the urban and the rural. In “Background Casually” he says: “I have made my commitments now / This is one; to stay where I am.
In his own words “My background makes me a natural outsider; circumstances and decisions relate me to India”.
Like other Indian poets, Ezekiel tried to achieve a cross-cultural harmonization not just by having an intellectual perspective but by having proper sensibility to know the basic human issues. He avoided both “the sophistication of the rootless” and “the parochialism of the native”. Though he has not inherited the great classical tradition of India, of Vedas and Upanishads, he availed himself of the composite culture of India to which he belongs.
Ezekiel is entirely Indian not only in his sensibility but also in proper use of Indian English to depict characteristic Indian attitudes. In the “Very Indian poem in English” the common mistakes committed by Indians in using English and other Indianisms are freely employed to create the typical Indian flavor with an artistic purpose in a realistic way. In “Goodbye party for Miss Pushpa T.S.” Ezekiel parodies the typical way of English used by the modern westernized ladies to expose their pretensions, affected manners and lack of ideals. The use of common Hindi words – Guru, Ashram, Burkha, Pan, Mantra—, syntactical peculiarities, vernacular words, and imagery drawn from the common senses and sights of India make him essentially an Indian poet in his sensibility.
Ezekiel fashioned his own style which is terse, clear, simple and precise with contemporary idiom and colloquial words assuming a new meaning and emotive significance in poetic contexts. His imagery and symbolism are functional and not merely decorative. He has a fine sense of metrical ability using effective rhyme and subtle use of rhythm in his singing lines to achieve different effects. In this aspect he may be compared to great poets like Eliot and Auden.
To sum up, Ezekiel’s poetry shows all the typical features of a modern Indian poet in thematic variety, use of symbolism, awareness of social and human problems, depiction of common people, portrayal of colorful and varied cultures, religions and professions, sense of alienation and search for identity along with satirical and witty remarks on drawbacks in society with sincere presentation of urban problems and views on human relationships and interests with a sympathetic and harmonizing outlook. His style and verse add more effects to his subjects. In the bulk of his poetry he affirms that he is very much an Indian and that his roots lie deep in India.
Finally like a typical Indian Poet with a universal vision he sincerely prays for doing human good.
“Whatever the enigma
The passion of the blood
Grant me the metaphor
To make it human good.”
(The Unfinished Man)