Background, Casually by Nissim Ezekiel
Bijay Kant Dubey
Background casually, not seriously, but lightly is the point of deliberation; the autobiography of a poet rascal in verse, who is but never a Shylock though may be a Maharashtrian Jew born and reared up in Bombay; a Shanwar Teli, a type of Saturday oil-presser by caste, this is but how he introduces himself in the poem titled so. Had he been an announcer, it would have been great. The poem is a caricature of his own. He is regaling here and hilarious enough to be put in words. To crack jokes, recreate humour, laugh and smile, chuckle and comment is his job. Taking recourse to the ironic mode, he often plays with dual meaning. Irony, comics and tonal presentations are the features of his poetry.
A poet rascal clown was born luckily, into the family of a science department professor figuring in Night of the Scorpion, destined to be a poet, an arts faculty boy ready for getting his education in England, going like Parthasarathy and Jussawalla and returning back to like them, feeling the identity crisis and putting it down on return journey back home. The child who used to brag and nag from taking food, one of meager bone was he initially who never learnt to fly a kite, but used to borrow the tops as for rotating, spinning.
The poet as a schoolboy went to Roman Catholic school, a mugging Jew among the wolves he thought of himself, not at that time, but during the writing of the poem he thought of and recollected it himself. Even then they used to tell him that he killed Christ, but that year he got the prize. A Muslim sportman boxed his years.
A boy in the presence of the undernourished strong Hindu lads, he used to feel terror-stricken, who but spelled the prepositions wrongly. After being repelled by passivity, he thought of going tough, even could have taken out a knife.
On Friday nights during the prayer time, he could never say the prayers held in strong faith and belief as lay deviating and digressing from. He had not been so much devout and holy enough. His morals had quite declined by then and side by side he had also heard of Yoga and Zen. Though he intended to be, but could never a Rabbi. The more he searched the less he found.
Thereafter the time came as for moving overseas, going to foreign. Perhaps a friend helped him pay the fare. In London it was difficult to sustain oneself. Poverty, philosophy and poetry seemed to be the three basement friends.
The London years passed by all alone and he spent it singly. Though could have, but took to not to his liking to be brought home. His affair with an English girl failed it or might be it he could not succeed in. Here Nissim hides in the fact, suppressing and curtailing it to be divulged, a top secret which his father could have. But we cannot believe it, one will go to England and will not have a rendezvous, déjà vu, face to face, vis-a-vis, tete-a-tete with a beautiful English blonde, belle, this cannot be, cannot be. Nissim too fell in love, loved her and left marking the futility of relationship. This we could guess from, presume about. Nissim does not make it clear who that goggleswalli; prem-pujaran is in reality.
Again he lay returning back strugglingly on the ship doing even the menial work to be back home. The homecoming thoughts overpowered him and he longed for after a sojourn. The final line of Enterprise strikes us, Home is where we gather grace.
The poet returned to the place wherefrom was he, back to Bombay. The family had the same opinion about the Hindus which his father held about and believed in. Speaking loudly and knocking at the door with a bang, they never liked it. But with it there came the marriage proposal, the negotiations doing the rounds and Nissim readying himself for seeing the face and being glued to the bride as he says in the poem Marriage.
He prepared not for the worst, but for marriage, assignment and his positioning. Marriage worked as a catalyst and with it the plane of dream and imagination with great flying aspirations came down it striking the ground.
Nissim as a lover is a failed romantic, he proposes, but keeps it not up the words of promise. The oath of love keeps it not up. He likes to write love letters, but not to his liking.
He will stay where he is, where his home is even though it is backward and remote. There is nothing as that gives so much of being at home. Nissim is a failed romantic, a failed lover, but an interesting ironist no doubt whose sleight of hand is his ironic mode and who is but the uncrowned master of art. Rarely a poet has mastered which is his feat and forte.
Nissim overcame his alienation, days of exile, frustration, anguish after homecoming, striking the chords of nativity, going for another innings, marriage, professional assignment and other likely things so on. The quest for identity which he felt it earlier malign it not his self later on as he found comfort, ease and grace in being here, not overseas. Though he wished to be, but Israel too could not snap his emotional ties.
A Jew in the midst of the Hindus, the Muslims and the Christians he was initially, but not the Buddhists, the Jains, the Parsis, perhaps he forgot to include them in this drama of his life. A lean and thin bony boy he was at that time going to school as the one mentioned in Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man.
Thereafter the same Jew moved to England, took to the things not, returned back to settle and take up an assignment. Comics, laughter, irony, fun and humour add to the poem just like the spices and the bits of salt given.
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.
I grew in terror of the strong
But undernourished Hindu lads,
Their prepositions always wrong,
Repelled me by passivity.
One noisy day I used a knife.
At home on Friday nights the prayers
Were said. My morals had declined,
I heard of Yoga and of Zen.
Could I, perhaps, be rabbi-saint?
The more I searched, the less I found
Twenty-two: time to go abroad.
First, the decision, then a friend
To pay the fare. Philosophy,
Poverty and Poetry, three
Companions shared my basement room.
The London seasons passed me by.
I lay in bed two years alone,
And then a Woman came to tell
My willing ears I was the Son
Of Man. I knew that I had failed
In everything, a bitter thought.
So, in an English cargo-ship
Taking French guns and mortar shells
To Indo-China, scrubbed the decks,
And learned to laugh again at home.
How to feel it home, was the point
Some reading had been done, but what
Had I observed, except my own
Exasperation? All Hindus are
Like that, my father used to say,
When someone talked too loudly, or
Knocked at the door like the Devil.
They hawked and spat. They sprawled around.
I prepared for the worst. Married,
Changed jobs, and saw myself a fool.
The song of my experience sung,
I knew that all was yet to sing.
My ancestors, among the castes,
Were aliens crushing seed for bread
(The hooded bullock made his rounds)
One among them fought and taught,
A Major bearing British arms.
He told my father sad stories
Of the Boer War. I dreamed that
Fierce men had bound my feet and hands.
The later dreams were all of words.
I did not know that words betray
But let the poems come, and lost
That grip on things the worldly prize.
I would not suffer that again.
I look about me now, and try
To formulate a plainer view:
The wise survive and serve to play
The fool, to cash in on
The inner and the outer storms.
The Indian landscape sears my eyes.
I have become a part of it
To be observed by foreigners.
They say that I am singular,
Their letters overstate the case.
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.
After coming back from England, now his heart wants it not to go anywhere. This is his land of birth and schooling; his karma and dharma. Where to move away? He feels within. The ancestral, paternal link can never be shaken off. He has become an indivisible part of it.
A background casually not, seriously too not, but lightly, jokingly is the point of our rehearsal. Poet Nissim is in the theatre of poetry and is rehearsing the drama of his life just as a convent boy does. None but he himself is introducing and none but he himself is admiring with claps and bravos and well-dones. Nissim the showman, the artiste is the thing, just a disco jockey not, but as a hotelier, a hosteller he is introducing.
A poet rascal, bloody-bastard, tomnoddy, idiot, how silly, whatever he knows he is using to start the poem and this is but convent style of gossiping, joking, introducing oneself which but Nissim is following. As after the break the convent school boys and girls in ironed shirts and shorts and canvas shoes come out with the badges, looking modern, smart, frank and bold, talking and gossiping., bidding hi-hello, bye-bye, see you so is the case here with Nissim. Nissim is trying to speak in English, thinking himself an Englishman, but with whom to talk and joke in India if the circle is not like-minded?
Let see what the poet rascal is saying, who the poet rascal abusing himself? This is just a technique of introducing oneself in a comical style whose master is he definitely as he knows the art as how to recreate and do the jokes. The word means a cruel or annoying fellow. It also means a mean, unprincipled, or dishonest person; a mischievous person or animal. After reading the poem, we feel it within to look up the words stupid, silly, idiot and so on in the dictionary used in sentences. The word stupid means lacking ordinary quickness and keenness of mind, dull, inane, pointless, silly, unwise, showing poor judgement or little intelligence.
When the poet says that he has some commitments to make, he makes us remind of Robert Frost and his lines relating to the dark and deep woods and the miles to go and that he has some duty and obligation to fulfill as he is committed to his family, society and the nation before he goes away finally.
When he talks about his family and the setting of their foot on India and one from his them participating in the Boer War, the context reminds us of the shipwrecked brothers of H.W.Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life.
The jokes of the convent boys he recreates and regales them, the talks, gossips and tidbits of the going to be Englishmen in India to our amazement and astonishment, how could the Europeans be on Indian soil.
This is his introduction by the way, just by the way which he wished to introduce, none but he himself telling about his identity, race, ethnicity and tradition and coping up in the midst of multi-lingualism and culturalism.
Background, Casually is a poem of race, ethnicity and family background, personal, confessional and anecdotal, dramatic, ironic, poetic and philosophical. Herein lies it the philosophy of life; the poetic narration of the self, the personal. A master poet of the ironic mode he caricatures, jokes and comments upon the ways of life and the world seen through personally. A Jewish persona lived and brought up in India he tells of the shipwrecks and the missing links. One of his uncles went to participate in the Boer War who told about the sad stories of war. His forefathers used to press oil and the hooded bullocks used were used in to extract it.
Let the people call it a backward place if it is, but he as a man has many commitments to execute from here. The place where he is now is it all. He belongs to it and has nowhere to go. The casual and clownish background is interesting indeed, rarely has been given in such a way he is giving. The wise make placed in different situations of life may even play the fool to study the inner and outer storms which is but a type of introspection. The song of experience tells him that where to move out, this is but India where lived the ancestors or yours.