An Analysis of Urban Sensibility in Nissim Ezekiel’s Poetry by Amlanjyoti Sengupta
Urban life, both as setting and subject matter, appeals to the modern literary artists. The rapidly developing modern metropolis proved to be an inspiring enough environment for artists and thinkers because of its immense variability and diversity. The city life provokes ambivalent attitudes and feelings in many who are mere thrilled by the opportunities it affords for their self-realization but who, sometimes hypocritically, also fear its vices and abhor the crudity of its life.
Many modern Indian English poets ventured urbanism in their poetry. Nissim Ezekiel is supreme among all to whom city of Bombay became the epicenter of his being. Most of his poems were set in this city. It was the city of the poet’s “birth and rebirth” having a prominent place in the poet’s conscience. The paper is an attempt to explore urnan sensibility in Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry.
Key words: Urban, Urban sensibility, Urbanism, Metropolis
In human life, geographical location and surroundings, through the persistence of their influences, acquire peculiar significance. On a poet or any creative writer, this impact is deeper. The area in which he/she lives, its people, their occupations, all find literary expressions through his/her pen. Thomas Hardy describes Wessex with all its rural traits. R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi describes the people of Malgudi, their simple joys and wishes, their professions, the natural surroundings with a great perfection. The impression of North of Boston is evident in the creation of Robert Frost. D.H. Lawrence’s novels bear an impression of his own life and surroundings in which he was brought up. Similarly Nissim Ezekiel is not an exception for whom Bombay is the city of the poet’s birth and rebirth. It is Bombay, the city with contradictions, where he wins and loses, for whom he lives and dies:
“…..Bombay as the fruit
on which I’ve lived,
winning and losing
my little life.”
Bombay has been an inspiring city for many poetic creations. The impact of the city’s growing and decaying civilisation on the consciousness of the new poets has produced some of the most telling Indo-Anglian poems. They have dealt with the oppression, inertness and decay of city life. Bombay has become a tantalising symbol of the bitterness and decadence of urban life in India. The poets have written about Bombay’s divergent moods and modulations. The poets have developed an ambivalent attitude of love-hate towards the city. For Dom Moraes, the city is merely a ‘cave’ suggesting its primitiveness and savageness. Gieve Patel is disgusted with the ‘eternal station odour’ 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.”
(Daruwalla, “Bombay Prayers”)
Even poets like Amit Choudhuri, Dilip Chitre and Aroop Mitra have expressed shock and disgust at the growing dehumanisation of the city and presented several dirty faces of the city with horrifying clarity – it’s unceasing traffic, strident noises, dubious night life and many more. 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 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 poet, Nissim Ezekiel made substantial contribution to Indo-English poetry by depicting Indian life, more particularly city life, vividly and realistically. The metropolitan city of Bombay figures most prominently in his poetry. According to Linda Hess “He is a poet of the city, Bombay.” On being asked, ―Has living in the city like Bombay affected your poetry? Ezekiel answers as follows:
I feel I am Bombay city poet, can‘t imagine living long anywhere else. I lived in London for 3 ½ years. 1948-51, but never thought of myself as a Londoner except that the Movement was alive then and I had a live contract with it. I am oppressed and sustained by Bombay. (Chindhade 157)
Ezekiel‘s response to Bombay is his response to his homeland, for it is through Bombay that he reflects on India. Never does he own Bombay with a nativist’s enthusiasm; nor does he reject Bombay as an alien outsider. As ‘a good native’ he seeks adjustment with Bombay –a strategy of survival, compatible with persona‘s ideology of human balance, thus
“It is home
which I recognize at last
as a kind of hell
to be made tolerable.”
(Ezekiel, After Reading a Prediction)
Urban Sensibility in Ezekiel’s Poetry
Ezekiel feels alienated from his homeland right from the very beginning of his childhood. Ezekiel belongs to Bene Israel community which migrated to India generations ago. He is acutely conscious of his alienation which is further accentuated by the fact that he spent most part of his life in metropolitan city Bombay with Marathi as his lost mother tongue and English, being the language of the home, his second mother tongue. The poet is conscious that he can not find his root in Bombay as he said:
“We cannot find our roots here,
don’t know where to go, Sir,
don’t know what to do, Sir,
need a Guru, need a God.
All of us sick, Sir.”
He is a detached involver of the Indian life as Philip Larkin was of the British life. His attitude towards the land of his adoption is that of a critical insider. His existence in Indian scenario is brilliantly depicted in very Ezekelian style in ‘Background, Casually’
“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 strong
But undernourished Hindu
Their prepositions always wrong,
Repelled me by passivity.
One noisy day I used a knife”.
The play of rejection and acceptance is one of powerful forces in Ezekiel’s poetry particularly his poems exclusively about India and Indian life. Ezekiel is basically a poet of city life, to say in Bruce King’s words, ‘a representative voice of urbanised, western educated India’. He would while cherishing the cosmopolitanism and the secular ethos of Bombay, bewails the gross commercial and existential character of the city. His passion is inevitably that of an urban bombayite, but it is a condition from which he frequently seeks release. The urge for the melodious song and the sight of growing scrapers and slums continually create a drama of conflict in Ezekiel‘s poetry. In one breath he would declare Bombay as an island of ―slums and skyscrapers ―unsuitable for song as well as sense; in the next breath realizing the futility of his resentment he would announce the acceptance of reality:
“Unsuitable for song as well as sense
the island flowers into slums
and skyscrapers, reflecting
precisely the growth of my mind.
I am here to find my way in it.
Sometimes I cry for help
But mostly keep my own counsel.
I hear distorted echoes
Of my own ambigious voice
and of dragons claiming to be human”.
As a “good native” he is ready to reconcile with the “ways of the island” and declares:
“I cannot leave the island,
I was born here and belong”.
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”.
There is a profound sense of compassion, understanding, acceptance and sympathy for the city. The poet has seen and known this city in all its aspects:
“Barbaric city sick-with slums,
Deprived of seasons, blessed with rains,
Its hawkers, beggars, iron-lunged,
Processions led by frantic drums,
A million purgational lanes,
And child-like masses, many tongued,
Whose wages are in words and crumbs”.
(Ezekiel, “Morning Walk”)
In the poem entitled ‘In India’ Ezekiel has enumerated the city sights, focusing our attention up on the poverty of the people as represented by the beggars, hawkers, pavement sleepers and the dwellers in slums. Here, he also draws our attention to the burning of woman who did not bring enough dowries, and to the virgin who are frightened of being molested by rogues and ruffians “bunt –out mothers”, frightened virgins”.
“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, “In India”)
In The Double Horror, irony is combined with the urban theme and the distortions of a mass culture are mercilessly exposed. The city has dehumanized human beings. Ezekiel thinks that highly commercialized human cilivization is like a ‘jungle growth’ which ‘sucks life from life’:
“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 toothpastes,
The jungle growth of what so obviously intends
To suck life from life, leaving you and me corrupted.”
(Ezekiel, “The Double Horror”)
In an urban scene love often degenerates into lust and Ezekiel deals with this aspect in his poem ‘An Affair’. Many of his poems like ‘Entertainment’, ‘Road Repairs’, At the Hotel’, ‘On Bellasis Road’, ‘At the Party’, ‘Hangover’ etc. have scenes and characters from the city life. In the poem ‘Hangover’ he describes Bombay with perfect juxtapositions:
“Half the day hazy with the previous night.
The non-drinker drinking, non-smoker smoking.
Two or three men, two or three girls.
The red coated waiters of Harbour Bar.
The redlight district dancer at the Apollo Room.
The foreigners and the foreign-returned.
The expensive menu and the shadow of Marx.
The Biryani Hyderabadi and the sighs for Bangla Desh.
The see- through dress and the show nothing sari.
The fog in the head and the sense of success.
The music Indian and the language English.
The Sindhi Sales Manager and the Parsi Fashion Model.
One good joke from a neighbouring table.
Five-children local family staring at one child American family”.
The satirical tone is continued with the contradictory statements:
“No Indian whisky Sir all imported this is Taj.
Yes Sir soda is Indian Sir.
Taxi – strike. George Fernandes.
Long walk to Churchgate between pavement sleepers.
Last train to Borivli, stopping at all stations.
Two blind beggars, husband and wife, in the first class
Half the day hazy with the previous night.”
Various places, which Ezekiel refers to, such as Harbour Bar, Apollo Room, Taj (Hotel Taj), Churchgate, Borivli etc. show that he is deeply attached to his city and completely familiar to every nook of it. The poet is extremely aware of the fact that in the subarbs of Bombay, many lead a wretched life and this finds an expression here:
‘Do you know where he lives?
Ghatkoper, twenty miles away.
Half an hour in queue,
Fifteen minutes in a bus,
Forty minutes in a train,
A long walk from the station to a slum.
Poor fellow, what a life!
He ought to be a smuggler
but doesn’t have the guts.
I tell you, we should have left
this country twenty years ago.
Now it’s too late. There’s no future for us.’
Ezekiel portrays the problem of human communication in the urbanized society and in this repect, in the poem “On Meeting a Pedant” the poet mocks at pedantry that characterizes the urban scene:
“Forgive me, stranger, grant me but a strip
Of silence for the taking off………
But spare me words as cold as print, insidious
Words, dressed in evening clothes for drawing rooms.”
(Ezekiel “On Meeting a Pedant”)
‘Words, dressed in evening clothes’ connotes the fashionable city style. “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” (Chindhade 41). To quote from the poem:
“Miss Pushpa is coming
from very high family.
Her father was renowned advocate
in Bulsar or Surat,
I am not remembering now which place.
Surat? Ah. Yes,”
(Ezekiel, “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T. S.”)
“Urban”, in ‘The Unfinished Man’ is a remarkable and unforgettable poem. It tells us of the city man, who is caught up in the phantasmagoria of sex and power and for whom there is no redemption. The poem explores 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.
“The hills are always far away.
He knows the broken roads and moves
In circles tracked within his head”.
He welcomes neither sun nor rain.
His landscape has no depth or height.”
The dichotomy between man’s hopes and achievements in the distressed city is suggested by the metaphor “broken roads” and “circles”. But towards the fag end of his career Ezekiel has come to realise,
“I cannot save Bombay
You cannot save it
They don’t even
want to save it”
(Ezekiel, “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”.
(Ezekiel, “Background, Casually”)
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”.
(Ezekiel, “A Time to Change”)
Nissim Ezekiel is a critic and a censor of the city life as he sees it. Ezekiel presented ‘Bombay’ as it is without concealing anything or singing unnecessary praise of the city. It is understood, that, though there is the apparent darkness, engulfing the city, which is not permanent, and is not unredeemable. In poem after poem, he has exposed to ridicule the ugly spots of the city and the failing, shortcoming, and deficiencies of city life. He finds the city of Bombay to be a sick and ailing city, inhabited by people who are sick too. The sickness is not just physical and environmental but also mental, requiring the attention of a psychiatrist. He calls it “a barbaric city”, full of slums, deprived of seasons, cursed with a million purgatorial lanes; it means dirty, abhorrent, repellent, narrow streets. He refers to its hawkers, its beggars asking for charity in loud voices, and it’s many tongued laborers who get their wages not in cash but in words and in crumbs. He takes notice not only of the pleasant aspects of the city but even more so, of the unpleasant aspects of it. His portrayal of urban life is all-encompassing. He always tries to build up a very vivid city scene, referring to the newspapers, cinemas, speeches demanding peace by men and grim, warlike faces, posters selling health and happines in bottles, and promises of large returns to small investments in football pods. We always experience miscellaneous imagery covering the good and the bad features of city life in Ezekiel’s poetry.
Ezekiel’s own relationship with the city may be described as a love-hate relationship. He hates the many unpleasant and disgusting aspects of city life in India and yet he feels attracted by the city life because of his feeling that by making the people aware of the miserable condition in which they live he may be able to bring about some improvement. And his desire to improve the condition of life shows his true commitment to this country.
Chindhade, Shirish (2011). Five Indian English Poets. New Delhi: Atlantic.
Ezekiel, Nissim (2006). Collected Poems 2nd ed. New Delhi: Oxford U P.
Hess, Linda, (Spring 1966), Post- Independence Indian Poetry in English, Quest, 49, pp. 28-38.
King, Bruce (1987). Modern Indian Poetry in English, Delhi: OUP
Amlanjyoti Sengupta is an assistant professor at the Department of English, Assam University (Diphu Campus), Diphu, Assam. He is the author and co-author of several books on Business Communication and communication skills in English. He presented papers on several topics at many international conferences in India and abroad.