Abha Tripathi on Nissim Ezekiel Poems

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Quintessence of Indianness and Colloquialism in the Selected Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

                                                                        By Dr. Abha Tripathi


Nissim Ezekiel has been one of the most explored writers of Indian English literature. His nativity has been extensively debated, but his Indianness cannot be simply denied on the grounds of his foreign origin. His themes, which evolved from the ‘ordinariness of events’, together, with simplicity in expression are a testimony to his being a real Indian. His poetry attracted huge circulations due to its unconventional style. He never titivated his language and left it bare. As a result, a colloquialness became apparent in his versification. This paper aims at focusing on Ezekiel’s very characteristic Indianness and his colloquialism.

Key Words: Indianness, colloquialism, theme, nativity.



Quintessence of Indianness and Colloquialism in the Selected Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

Modern Indian poetry reached an unprecedented stature attributable to Nissim Ezekiel commonly known as the father of the Post-Independence Poetry. He is figured as a protean figure in Indian literary scenario. He wrote many volumes of poems including Time to Change (1952), Sixty Poems (1953), The Third (1959), The Unfinished Man (1960), The Exact Name (1965), etc. Besides he wrote a few plays, edited books wrote essays for various journals etc.

Nissim, Indian Jewish by origin, was born in India. He was educated in India and later also headed the English Department at Mithibai College, Mumbai in India. His visit to England elicited the most authentic poet in him. He was influenced with writers like Yeats and considered poetry as the ‘record of the mind’s growth.’

Nissim has had a distinct and lucid writing style. He outshined in his art of expression. His simplicity fused with profoundness lured his admirers. His somewhat transformed the otherwise bucolic trends in writing with his urban and modernistic style. Some of the distinct characteristics of his writing include his observance of the versatility inherent in an Indian locale. His candid representation of situations and events added to his poetic eminence. “To Ezekiel goes the credit of having ushered a new trend in the post –independence period, which changed the course of Indian Poetry in English in theme and technique..” (Sastry, 96).

The most conspicuous fact about his writing is that even though he wrote urbanized poetry, he never abandoned the rustic ambiance which lay embedded in Indian consciousness. Rather he countrified his themes to give his poetry a native hue. But the most impressive features which classify him as the father of Modern Indian poetry are his simple themes picked out from day to day lives of people, their Indian settings, Indian ethos and undeniably his colloquial versification which will also be the subject matter of this paper.

Nissim Ezekiel acknowledged that he was an Indian poet. Sirish Chindhade, quotes “When asked by John B.Beston ‘Writing in English in India, would you see yourself essentially as an Indian poet or a world poet’ he answered, ‘I regard myself essentially as an Indian poet writing in English.” (30) The Indian in him is visible in his artistic creations ever now and then. His style is quintessentially Indian ornamented with a special diction.

 Most of his poetry revolves around India. Most of his themes are typically Indian. His characters appear to be from amongst us speaking their minds like us. The poet’s meticulous observance helps us relate to his poetry more easily.

The most anthologized poem of Ezekiel, The Night of the Scorpion, is essentially one of the finest and authentic representation of India. It episodes an incident when a scorpion stings the speaker’s mother. The entire village turns up in order to help the mother minimize her agony when in fact they are well aware of its futility.

The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the name of God a hundred times
to paralyse the Evil One.(31-32)

The Indian customary calls for all acquaintances to make a visit to people in their times of joys as well as sorrows. The sharp eyed poet has shown an invariable explicitness in this poem. Many critics have noticed the wryness of Ezekiel in the poem but the emotional aesthetics and community sense of Indians which he has captured is exemplary.

With candles and with lanterns
throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the mud-baked walls
they searched for him: he was not found.
They clicked their tongues. (32)

Undoubtedly, the superstitious beliefs and multi remedial techniques occupy important positions in the content but only to make it more familiar to us. How the villagers empathize with the mother and contribute in searching for the scorpion is innately Indian.

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.(32)

A special mention should be made about the idea of motherly sacrifice which is inherent of the typical Indian heritage. Indian scriptures and texts and folklores are proven to have borne examples of great mothers who gave away their lives for their children but found rare mention in poetics or rhetoric. What more is required to prove the Indianness of Ezekiel who explored the richness and piety of a truly devoted Indian mother who thinks only of her children irrespective of any pain.

            My mother only said

            Thank god the scorpion picked on me

and spared my children (32)

This poem has much more to it than simple mockery of superstitions and rurality. Rather it exhibits the humane side of an Indian society with austerity without much attention to adornment of language and thought. “Nissim Ezekiel has reflected the Indian ways as much through his use of many Indian words.” (Rahman,76)

Goodbye Party for Miss T. Pushpa, is another verse about an official tradition, displayed humorously. A very popular and frequently quoted one in the annals of modern Indian poetry of Ezekiel, it has attained special recognition due to its special ‘babu’ English. It is composed by an unusual use of present continuous tense even when it is not necessary.

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. (37)

This attracted various remarks from critics about Ezekiel’s satire of Indian English. But the poem has much more than the satirical tone. It brings out the typical linguistic flavour of his contemporary India. R. Partsarthy states, “This poem imitates the idiolect features of English used by Gujarati speakers. Some of these features are also present in other Indian languages: the use of the present progressive tense for the simple present tense, un-English collocation of lexical items, and literal translation of phrases and idioms” (Mitra,273)

Besides the language, the theme of the poem is essentially Indian. It opens with a very respectful Indian way of addressing the protagonist, Miss Pushpa T. S. as ‘sister’.

our dear sister 
is departing for foreign 
in two three days,

we are meeting today
to wish her bon voyage. (37)

Moreover, the title of the poem with the initials


the Indianness of the poet once again. The content, literal translations, slight references to additional details etc. are in particular remarkable for the unique Indian conversational style.

The best part of this literary piece like many others is the simple and comprehensible colloquialism, distinctive of Ezekiel. His language is a common man’s language clear and perceptible. This poem neither follows any strict rhythmic pattern or syntax, nor is it confined to particular rules of grammar, nevertheless it attracts large readership. He writes about those day to day events obvious in daily lives which usually go unnoticed. Themes like a farewell party, a country life, the cawing of a crow, the grievances of an Indian railway clerk, etc. often fail to attract the attention of people but Ezekiel is blessed with a rare sense of observance. Furthermore, he is not formal in his words, like many of his contemporaries. “With this poetic perception, he transmutes every ordinary occurrence into a faithful description. He sees a thing and communicates that object, event or thing with the virtues of an inspirational trinity of philosophy, poetry and prophecy.” (Gupta,435)

Indian beliefs have been the focal point of many literary geniuses. Indian writing in English can never do away with Indian credence and it makes literary works appeal to a larger number of readers. One such fine example is the poem, The Visitor based on a famous Indian belief of cawing of a crow to be an announcement which is soon followed by some visitor.

          Three times the crow has cawed

          At, the window, the baleful eyes fixed

          On mine, wings slightly raised

          In sinister poise…(33)

The selection of this theme is a testimony to Ezekiel’s Indianness. It shows his allegiance to Indian customs and beliefs. He waits all day long for the arrival of the crow because of his conviction in India.

          All day I waited, as befits

          The folk belief that following

The crow a visitor would come,(34)

The Railway Clerk is another popular mélange of Indian reality enhanced with a middle class setting. A discontented Railway clerk complains about the reasons which cause anxiety and pessimism.

I am never neglecting my responsibility,

I am discharging it properly,

I am doing my duty,

but who is appreciating?

Nobody, I am telling you.

In spite of all official and personal efforts of the railway clerk, his life abounds a pathetic gloom. He is deeply thoughtful of his future and children and other usual anxieties. He is an epitome of an Indian middle class, victimized at the hands of wretched social conditions. He works and works without any consolation from peers or officials. In addition, they make life worse for him by refusing him his basic rights as an employee.

                        It isn’t my fault

                        I do what I’m told

                        but still I am blamed

                        This year, my leave application

                        was twice refused.

Vulnerability as an outcome of unsatisfactory economic and employment conditions has been attracting large debates in India, nevertheless, situations have hardly shown any much improvement.

In a nutshell it can be discerned that Ezekiel absorbed the Indian sensitivity profoundly. He saw in Indian ‘ordinariness of events’ his inspiration which eventually occupied vital significance in his poetry. He captured Indianness from its roots which lay deep in its cultural and traditional heritage. He adorned his thoughts in typical Indian language and diction. Often, he has been accused of his satire and wryness about India, Indian themes, linguistic styles etc., but contrarily he has shown excellence in representing true India. Many of his works show conflicts in representing rich values together with the naked realities of human life but it is again draped in true Indian hues, which aim at betterment of India. Ezekiel’s India is a conglomeration of Indian urbanity, rusticity, values, transparency, traditions and perfect linguistic patterns. His India is what we see around even today. He deals with his themes and characters in closest affiliation with the social Indian milieu.

His language and diction have been a common subject of much discussion. Critics have given contrasting views about his recurrent use of Indian English, typical of its abolishment of grammatical rules and misuse of tenses but it has given a special recognition to him as an Indian English poet. In the words of Rahman, “Nissim Ezekiel has used both the free and the conventional forms of verse. He does not consider any form as outdated and writes in the way as it comes to him.”. Further he quotes the words of Ezekiel who acknowledges in the following words, “To use a traditional form is not outdated or old fashioned. It is the idiom that becomes outdated not the form. I try to use contemporary idiom in whatever form it comes at the time of writing.” (80)

In his book, Indian English Poetry: Critical Perspectives, Dodia writes about Ezkiel’s use of colloquialism, “The conversation is typically Indian in character and the language used is fitting to the conversation and creates the desired effect.” (244)

          Ezekiel was truly an Indian. He infused true Indian spirit in his poems. His entire conceptualization germinated from Indian spirit. Once in an interview he said, “I regard myself essentially as an Indian poet writing in English. I have a strong sense of belonging, not only to India but to this city. I would never leave Bombay-it’s a series of commitments.” (Damodar,59) It was his concern for India which encouraged him to write about it from within. Thus it can be truly and proudly admitted that Ezekiel bore the quintessence of Indianness which not only rendered him a national as well as international acclaim as an Indian poet but made India also better known worldwide not for its pathos but for its ethos.


Works Cited:

Chindhade, Sirish. Five Indian Poets. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi. (2001) p.30 Web.

Damodar,G. “Search for Identity: An Estimate of Ezekiel’s Poetry” The Journal of Indian Writing in English, Vol. XIV, No.2 (July1986),p 59. Web

Dodia, Jaydipsinh.K. ed. Indian English Poetry: Critical Perspectives, Swaroop And Sons, New Delhi, (2004) p 244. Web

Gupta, Meenu. “Post-Colonial Ethos in the Modern Indian English Poets: EzeKiel , Kamala Das and Ramanujam” Indian Poetry in English: Critical Essays. ed. Mitra, Zinia. PHI Learning Private Limited New Delhi (2012) p 435.Web

Parthsarathy.R. ed. Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets. Oxford University Press. New Delhi

(1976) p 31,32,33,34,37,38. Print.

Rahman, Anisur. Form and Value in the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel. Abhinav Publications, New

Delhi, (1981) p76, 80 Web.

Reddy, Sasikant. “Composite Cultural Reflections in the Selected Poems of Nissim Ezekiel”.

Indian Poetry in English:Critical Essay. ed.Mitra, Zinia. PHI Learning Private Limited New Delhi (2012) p 273. Web.

Sastry, L.S.R.Krishna .“A Note on Ezeliel’s Poetry” The Indian Journal Of English Studies, ed. Kayyappa Paniker. (1992-93) Web

Introduction to the Author:

Dr. Abha Tripathi (UGC-NET, USET, Ph.D.) is working as an Assistant teacher at one of the government schools at Haldwani (Nainital).  She has a keen interest in modern drama and Indian English writing. Other areas of interests includes Shakespearean tragedies.

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