NISSIM EZEKIEL’S “BOMBAY POEMS”
K. R. RAMACHANDRAN NAIR
Indian poetry in English has had a chequered growth since HLV Derozio wrote his sonnets and narratives in the tradition of the English romantics. Today, after about hundred and fifty years, Indo-Anglian poetry clearly shows indications of an attempted breakaway from the romantic traditions of the early poets like Derozio, Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu. Both in content and craftsmanship Indo-Anglian poetry has diversified into new fields and strange modes and today it stands amazed at its own growth and consequent agonies. However, most Indo-Anglian poets are restrained in their moment of sublimity by the absence of a common Indian cultural milieu, lack of a tradition in their bones. Poetry in our regional languages is mostly sustained by our racial and religious traditions and only recently the breeze from the West has begun blowing into its tissues. The Indo-Anglian poet educated in English and western literature has to be content with the tricklings of Indian literary tradition he has assimilated and face the challenges of the age of science, technology, politics and social resurgence. Thus Indo-Anglian literature today is in search of a definite form and style and the futile search is likely to continue until the Indo-Anglian writer affirms the essential Indianness of his inspiration in his writings. Only when the writer has an uncramped philosophical vision of the universe in the light of Indian cultural traditions and experience and is capable of assimilating a world outlook, he is able to express the Indian ethos quite effectively.
Nissim Ezekiel is one of those poets of the post-independence era in whose writings we discover a genuine attempt to harmonise the diverse elements of our volatile urban culture. Ezekiel was born in Bombay in a Bene-Israel family and has spent most of his life in the highly westernised circles of the cosmopolitan city. He claims that he began writing in English because he did not know any other language well enough to express himself. “Contemporary poets in India generally write in English when they have gone through English medium schools”, wrote Ezekiel, “I write in English for this reason and cannot write in any Indian language”.1
Ezekiel bagan with a sense of alienation with the world around him. His poetry has been attempted to establish some kind of recognisable order and relevance for his self in the irrational and featureless world that surrounded him. The poet’s gradual emotional disassociation from the immediate environment of the city where he was born began in early childhood. At school he considered himself a “Mugging Jew” among the Hindu, Christian and Muslim “wolves”, perpetually a “frightened child”.2 His failure to get into the mainstream of Bombay’s life is symbolically expressed:
He never learnt to fly a kite
His borrowed top refused to spin.
Later Ezekiel was to write, “I am not a Hindu and my background makes me a natural outsider. Circumstances and decisions relate me to India. In other countries I am a foreigner. In India I am an Indian”. 3 The original tension in Ezekiel’s poetry was probably born out of this agony of being a fortuitous Indian outside the pale of India’s dominant culture.
Ezekiel’s life and poetry are, in fact, inseparable. The activity of poetry produces a solemn harmony of existence for him in a world riddled with discordant notes. Each poem is a luminous link in that chain of continuity that glorifies and ennobles the poet’s life.
Ezekiel is a poet of multitudinous themes. One of the most recurring themes in his poetry is the sensation of oppression in a crowded civilisation represented by the city of Bombay. It is the “bitter native city” 4 where the poet was born and brought up and where he lives now. A recurring note in his poetry is the wound urban civilisation inflicts on unattached man. His poetry gives the impression of an oversensitive soul caught in the tentacles of a cruel city civilisation, unable to escape from its vagaries and consequently developing a love-hate relationship with its tormentor. Ezekiel has seen the splendour and poverty of the great city, its air-conditioned skyscrapers and claustrophobic slums, its marvellous capacity for survivals and its slow decadence. His reaction to the city’s oppression is a light-hearted, ironic and often sardonic exposure of its several hidden faces. “Many of his poems derive their effectiveness from the poet’s puzzled emotional reaction to the modern Indian dilemma, which he feels to be poignant conflicts of tradition and modernism, the city and the village: a somewhat obvious theme but treated by Ezekiel as an intensely personal exploration”.5 For Ezekiel this Indian dilemma is symbolised by the city of Bombay.
Most Indo-Anglian poets have dealt with the oppression, inertness and decay of city life. Particularly, the city of Bombay has become a tantalising symbol of the bitterness and decadence of urban life in India. The poets who have made Bombay their native city and the poets, who have known Bombay through short spells of residence there, have written about Bombay’s divergent moods and modulations. The impact of the city’s growing and decaying civilisation on the consciousness of these poets has produced some of the most telling Indo-Anglian poems. The poets, one and all, have developed an ambivalent attitude of love-hate towards the city and have been unable to escape its several seductions. For Dom Moraes, the city is merely a “cave” suggesting its primitiveness and savageness.6 Gieve Patel is disgusted with the “eternal station odour” 7 of Bombay which hits every nostril. The squalor and putridness of the metropolis is reflective of the decay of human existence caused by industrialisation. The woodenness and insensitivity that have gone into the Bombay soul is subtly expressed by Keki N. Daruwalla thus:
I am the doctor who bangs his doors shut
On a queue of waiting patients.
Even less eminent poets like Amit Choudhuri, Iqbal Monani, Abhanjan K. Mishra, Dilip Chitre and Aroop Mitra have expressed shock and disgust at the growing dehumanisation of the city. It is in the milling crowds of Bombay
one feels the greatest distance separating map from man.8
In their poems several dirty faces of the city appear with horrifying clarity – its dust and din, “pushing and jostling” unceasing traffic, strident noises, dubious night life, philosophy of live and kill and above all the animalism, greed, jealousy and littleness of its inhabitants. Aroop Mitra’s poem “Cityscapes”, particularly, focuses on the littleness that lurks behind the facade of greatness and splendour exhibited by the city inhabited by a people.
........ breathing little
Air, drinking little water,
Earning little, spending
Little, wasting little,
And make a little love
And spice a little music.
More than any other Bombay poet, Nissim Ezekiel presents a comprehensive picture of the city, at once realistic and ironic. Background, Casually expresses the travails of an intelligent Jew boy of “meagre bone” living and growing up in a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-linguistic urban society where he was so alienated and frightened that
One noisy day I used a knife
The “point” Ezekiel mentions in this early poem is “how to feel at home”. This has continued to dominate his poetry in several forms till today. In The Edinburgh Interlude (1983) Ezekiel wrote,
I have become
part of the scene
which I can neither love nor hate.
He lived through a “life of cheerful degradation normal in my neighbourhood” until a mature awareness ensconced him. Today towards the fag end of his career, as a condemner of the great city’s iniquitous ways, Ezekiel has come to realise
I cannot save Bombay
You cannot save it
They don’t even
want to save it
(The Edinburgh Interlude)
In spite of his disgust with the futilities of the sprawling city, Ezekiel, early in life, made a commitment to choose Bombay as his place of residence
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.
My backward place is where I am.
This inevitable choice to stay, however, unsettles the poet. Instead of providing an anchor for his thoughts and hopes, it launches the poet into an unending search for stability and repose. “However, Ezekiel has kept his commitment by depicting life faithfully as he finds it in the city of Bombay. He has not shown any craze for visiting foreign countries. Instead his poetry has acted as a mirror for reflecting life as it is actually lived in this backward place”.9 His desire to belong to the city he chose is often frustrated by the impact of the strange city’s truculent mass culture. His desire to escape from the tantaliser city of his birth is never realised because one cannot escape from oneself. The city has become his addiction.
To save myself
From what the city had made of me, I returned
As intended, to the city I had known.
(A Time to Change)
The poet’s reluctant return to the reprehensibleness of the city exposes him to the horrors of a disintegrating culture. In The Double Horror, irony is combined with the urban theme and the distortions of a mass culture are mercilessly exposed:
Posters selling health and happiness in bottles,
Large returns for small investments in football pools,
Or self-control, six easy lessons for a pound
Holidays in Rome for writing praise of toothpaste.
(The Double Horror)
The poet, who was once in advertising, knows the essential ingredients of the insatiable mass culture of his city. Almost everything that corrupts and beguiles in the gallivating culture of the metropolis is mentioned. The subdued reference to the Hollywood film “A Roman Holiday” in the last line anticipates the surrender of the city to the invading film culture of the West.
Urban is a poem of eighteen lines exploring the divergence between the Bombay man’s search for the nourished dream of a free, oppressionless existence and his perennial inability to achieve even a partial realisation of it. He never sees the skies; he never welcomes the sun or the rain; his morning walks are dreams floating on a wave of sand.
He knows the broken roads and moves
In circles tracked within his head
The dichotomy between man’s hopes and achievements in the distressed city is suggested by the metaphor “broken roads” and “circles”. The disgusting routinisation of everyday life, the resulting Jack of coordination between action and perception and the sense of futility of human efforts to discover meaning in hope arc the outcome of the tyranny of the city over the citizen. The dilemma of the poet who desperately tries to disown and reject the city which “burns like a passion”10 is touchingly expressed in Urban. Like Yeats in the “Lake Isle of Innisfree”, the poet here longs for a quiet habitation away from the kindred clamour” of the wild city. But all his dreams of solitary morning walks and vision of the far away hills, the beach and the trees are thwarted by an overwhelming passion that turns the traffic of his mind to urban chaos.
No one escapes from the labyrinth of the Circe-like city. The city of “slums and skyscrapers” has seduced the poet to a gradual bitter resignation. In Island he wrote,
I cannot leave the island
I was born here and belong.
As a “good native” he is ready to reconcile with the “ways of the island”. However, the poem has ominous undertones of frustration and sadness expressed through contrasting images like “slums and skyscrapers”, “dragons claiming to be human”, “echoes and voice”, “past and future” and “calm and clamour”. In Citysong there is a reluctant acceptance of the ways of the city. From the terrace of a friend, the poet watches the city that lies below. A sudden urge overtakes him to return to the city just as a repentent debauchee returns to his seductress at her sight.
I want to return
As soon as I can
To be of this city
To feel its hot breath
I have to belong
A Momillg Walk is a great poem which translates the sense of the bustle of the “barbaric city” into a gnawing pain that oppresses the poet’s memory. The picture of the city deprived of humaneness, seething with poverty, dirt, noise and bustle emerges with disturbing clarity in this poem.
Barbaric city sick with slums,
Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains,
Its hawkers, beggar, iron-lunged,
Processions led by frantic drums,
A million purgatorial lanes,
And child-like masses, many-tongued,
Whose wages are in words and crumbs
(A Morning Walk)
The paralysis of the will and the finer emotions the Bombay man suffers from is succinctly suggested by a chain of metaphors. The “cold and dim” city is his purgatory. The morning breeze and trees, the cool garden on the hill and the hedges cut to look like birds are the symbols of Bombay man’s unattained and unattainable hopes. The poet poses the question why
His native place he could not shun,
The marsh where things are what they seem?
(A Morning Walk)
A Morning Walk is intended to be a walk out of the city’s fatal grip but ends up once again as a walk towards the city’s festering fascinations. “The marsh of reality and the distant (but troublesome to the city dweller) hills are the counterparts, in terms of landscapes, to the old dichotomies in Ezekiel’s work, between sex and the unrealised goal of an all-inclusive love, between body and soul, a sense of sin and the prospect of redemption, action and patience”. 11
One of the earliest influences on Ezekiel was T. S. Eliot. A Morning Walk, in spite of its unquestioned originality, compels comparison with Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot’s theme is the drabness of European civilisation immediately after the First World War. Ezekiel’s theme is a walk through the decadence of Bombay’s soul which began immediately after the Second World War. Both have their purgatory of existence in the turpitude of sunk values. Both are searching for new insights in a world where new insights are only those of agony and frustration. The central image of The Waste Land is that of land blighted by a curse where crops do not grow and animals are cursed with sterility. Ezekiel’s morning walk resembles the journey of the protagonist in Eliot’s poem to the Chapel Perilous through a parching and agonising area of horror and darkness where “one can neither stand nor lie nor sit”. 12
Love Sonnet shows the sad case of a pair of lovers longing for privacy in the midst of a noisy and crowded metropolis. The poet’s total rejection of Indian noise, the irony of the Iranian restaurant instructions and the different disgusting scenes from Indian life depicted in In India symbolize, in spite of their bantering tone, Ezekiel’s derision for the values of a culture that grips him from all around. The several vignettes of disgust and revulsion Ezekiel presents in In India add upto a haunting urban picture of societal doom and individual depravity.
Here among the beggars,
Hawkers, pavement sleepers,
Hutment dwellers, slums,
Dead souls of men and gods,
Burnt-out mothers, frightened
Virgins, wasted child,
And tortured animal,
All in noisy silence
Suffering the place and time,
I ride my elephant of thought.
Ezekiel’s irony is at its best in In India. With him irony is like a moving searchlight that sheds its brilliance on hitherto undiscovered corners of our dark existence enabling us to see the reality that lurks behind appearances. The Roman Catholic Goan boys hastening to prayers after having their “solitary joy” with “high heeled toys”, the Anglo-Indian gentlemen drinking whisky in company with secretive Muslims, the wooden Indian wives who sit apart at parties and the ubiquitous Bombay typist (or secretary) who is seduced by her English boss after an initial struggle are some of the tinged close-ups presented with devastating irony in the poem.
The “unplanned city has a death wish”13 and attracts several kinds of healers. “All of us are sick”. 14 and so need some kind of barbiturate, meditation, a Guru or a godman.
We cannot find our roots here
don’t know where to go, Sir
(Family – Song for Nandu Bhende)
Caught in the vortex of a soulless city the poet longs for salvation. His poetry becomes a perpetual quest for identity and commitment in a world of eroding individuality and lack of purpose. The poet expresses his dilemma thus:
.... .... .... The door is
but I cannot leave
The city like the woman on Bellasis Road fascinates and repels the poet. Like the fake Guru on its pavement, the city extends its unscrupulous hands to the unwary citizen. The amorphous crowd in Entertainment is a cross section of Bombay’s polluted conscience – the crowd that collects, thickens, applauds and finally dissolves in an act of involuntary, meaningless and ungrateful impulse. Thus in Ezekiel’s poetry “the city being more than an image is transformed into a symbol of decomposed garbage, a space infected as also it is on a deeper level not a particular place in the large cosmos but a system of living shattered and corroded at the very core. The sapling of life with its freshness, vigour and innocence does not blossom here any more”. 15
Adit Jussawalla says that “Nissim Ezekiel’s poems are the records of the moral aches and pains of a modern Indian in one of his own cities”. 16 The poet who has gone through the travails of the city finds no alternate tabernacle of hope. This existential frustration is expressed in Enterprise. Like Morning Walk and Entertainment, this poem is moulded out of the fallouts of frustration in a “barbaric city.” Enterprise is an allegory of the pilgrimage theme with a suggestion of futility. Journey from the city to the hinterland is a metaphor for contrived change from frustration to fulfilment. Even here a “shadow falls” on the group of pilgrims because.
.... … … differences arose
on how to cross a desert patch
The group ignores the thunder which is nothing but the inner voice that should have guided the group. Man deprived of the inner voice or insensitive to the call of his own soul invariably rushes into impediments:
Another phase was reached when we
Were thrice attacked, and lost our way
A section claimed its liberty
To leave the .... … …
At the end of the journey there is complete disillusionment. Was the journey worth undertaking? Instead of bringing any sense of fulfillment, the “trip had only darkened every face”. The futility of the trip, the struggles on the way, the deprivations the group undergoes and the failure to compromise the intention of the trip with its end are succinctly brought out in the final clinching line
Home is we have to gather grace.
This gathering of grace comes in the form of an awareness in the poet of the regenerative and recuperative power of art. The brilliantly evocative poem Jamini Roy is an exception to the general tone of frustration Ezekiel exhibits in his city poems. Jamini Roy was an urban painter who had learnt the secret of self-expression and communication by turning to the rural folk and their style of living. He was able to see things in their primitive simplicity and innocence and could establish a personal identity with what is beautiful and sensuous in rural life. He refused to recognise sex and power as main motives behind human action; he did not try to depict the soul sickness of the urban civilisation, but “he travelled, so he found his roots”. 17 Jamini Roy is an indication of Ezekiel’s belief in the possibility of bringing about some sort of order and assimilation through art in a world of moral chaos and ethical confusion. He discovers a new spirit of hope and declares his intention to walk the streets of Bombay “Cezanne slung around my neck”.18 Only the artist can create a new and orderly world out of the ruins of the old. His advice to the artist is,
Do not be satisfied with the world
that God created, create your own.
(Advice to a Painter)
1 Nissim Ezekiel, Answer to questionnaire in Modern Indian Poetry in English, 2nd Ed. by P. Lal (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1971) p. 168
2 Nissim Ezekiel, Background, Casually
3 Nissim Ezekiel, ‘Naipaul’s India and Mine’ in New Writing in India, Ed. Adil Jussawalla, p. 88
4 Nissim Ezekiel, Hymns in Darkness.
5 H. M. Williams, Indo-Anglian Literature 1800-1970, A Survey. (Orient Longman Ltd. 1976) p. 116
6 Dom Moraes, Cave
7 Gieve Patel, Extract
8 Amit Chaudhury, At Churchgate Station
9 Chetan Karnani, Nissim Ezekiel (Arnold Heinemann, 1974) p. 105
10 Nissim Ezekiel, Urban
11 Garman, Michael ‘Nissim Ezekiel – Pilgrimage and Myth’ included in Critical Essays on Indian Writing in English Ed. by M. K. Naik, S. K. Desai & G. S. Amur (Macmillan, 1971) p. 145-46
12 T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land - V, Selected Poems (Faber) p. 64
13 Nissim Ezekiel, Healers
14 Nissim Ezekiel, Songs for Nandu Bhende – Family.
15 Anisur Rahaman, Form and Value in the Poetry of Nissim Ezekiel. (Abhinav Publications, 1981) p. 54
16 ‘The New Poetry’ included in Readings in Commonwealth Literature, Ed. by William Walsh (Oxford, 1973) p. 79
17 Nissim Ezekiel, Jamini Roy
18 Nissim Ezekiel, In India