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Sep 3, 2016

Irony And Caricature In Nissim Ezekiel

Irony And Caricature In Nissim Ezekiel
Bijay Kant Dubey

Of all the modern poets and poetesses whom we study into the realm of Indian English poetry, Nissim Ezekiel as a poet is best known for his use of irony and caricature, fun and joke, humour and laughter, chuckle and mockery. Even his friends are not able to regale and recreate as he does in his poetry just like the mimic man or a pantomime artiste. A writer of literary polish and etiquette, he wants to be a modern man; a modern Indian and this is the image to carry it along with. To do the caricature is the hidden art of Nissim and he does it so successfully.  It will not be wrong to say if we call him the caricature man of Indian English poetry as he does it so remarkably. To salt and spice the statements is his job; to hear the Indians using and applying English. How do they use it Angrezi, the patriot’s English, Miss Pushpa’s English, the geography department Prof. Sheth’s English, the freedom fighter’s English? How the weak in English advocating for Angrezi hatao? English is  English, King’s English, Queen’s Standard, but it is Indian English also, somehow added and tagged, sentences framed and translated and spoken in English, conversation carried on with hitches haltingly and the stress, pitch and accent falling here and there.

As the green-necked parrots imitate the sounds, Sita-Ram, Sita-Ram, in a few rural Indian households or those of the astrologers, lying caged so do the Indians copy and imitate English, but the vernaculars come in between, the far-flung domains and the lack of resources. Time, distance, thing and custom too put in hurdles in going cosmopolitan not, but at least modern. The exotic lands and domains were not connected and the resources were not available in the poor rural countryside. Pushpa’s English is a type in whom can hear about the varieties of English, Gujarati English, Marathi English, Bihari English, Bengali English, Punjabi English, Bhojpurian English, tribal English. Nissim Ezekiel should know it we even falter in pronouncing some words and the naming ones too, for example, psalm, pneumonia, cholera, Alsatian, porcupine, paradigm, Job, Maupassant, Maugham and so on.

A poet of Bene Israel origin, Nissim Ezekiel did his schooling and college education in Bombay before moving to England and on his return journey taught and worked in different capacities before joining Bombay University. He was an editor, an art critic and what not. Time To Change, 1952, The Third,1959, The Unfinished Man, 1960,The Exact Name, 1965, Hymns in Darkness, 1976, Latter-Day Psalms,1982, Collected Poems 1952-88, 1989, etc. are the works which he has authored from time to time. A poet of the modern age and times, he found solace in modernism rather than Indianness envisaged in Indian thought, culture, tradition and philosophy. A poster boy of modernism, he frolicked with dead conventions which he never approved of. But himself was a Jew, a Maharashtrian Jew from Bombay so detached from Indian thought and culture, tradition and philosophy, religion and spirituality, metaphysics and cosmology, theology and ethics, morality and didacticism though the concepts of  karma and dharma struck him down and drew so close. But is strongly one of Bombay, the place of birth, nativity and all other contacts and connects.

Background, Casually by Nissim Ezekiel is an autobiographical piece wherein he tells us about his life, schooling, marriage and so on. The poet introduces himself poetically and the poem is a caricature of his own, as to crack jokes, recreate humour, laugh and smile, chuckle and comment is his job. A poet rascal clown was born luckily, is the way he introduces himself. It is none but he himself who goes calling his names and it too is a style of introduction. The convent boys and girls while thinking themselves laden with studies or taking to be Englishmen and women, do it so. One can mark it when the English school breaks up, getting the taste of England and Englishes with the varieties of Englishness.

The poem Background, Casually may be quoted for our ready reference:

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.

The poet as a schoolboy went to Roman Catholic school, a Jew in the midst of the Hindus, the Muslims and the Christians. The Christians said it that he had killed Christ, but never did he. The same year he got the scripture prize. A Muslim came and boxed his ears. He just amuses with these memoirs and reflections. Background, Casually is a poem taken to be lightly, not seriously at all. A modern man, how can he dream of becoming a rabbi? His morals have declined considerably. So he does not feel it the guts of becoming. Apart from being a Jew he has also heard of Yoga and Zen. Nissim as a poet is a light writer and in his lightness lies it the seriousness of thought and idea and vice versa.

The London days though had bouts of romantic frill and nostalgia went off singly and he could not take for an English girl. He had definitely inclination for, but he suppressed it the matter, curtailed it the reel of his life censoring to be leaked to his Indian wife.
The starting lines of the Goodbye Party For Miss Pushpa T.S. tell of Pushpa one from Gujarat is going to foreign and Nissim trying to caricature her under the pretext of giving her a goodbye party. Let us see how he makes the announcement without even a microphone:

our dear sister
is departing for foreign
in two three days,
we are meeting today
to wish her bon voyage.

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.

The poet outwits us when he says there is sweetness in Pushpa which but all do not know it, not only external, but internal sweetness. Nissim is but a ripe mango full of juice.

The concluding lines of the Goodbye Party For Miss Pushpa T.S. have a movement and recourse of own, developing in the likewise manner of narration where the poet has tried to catch the rhythms of speech, the local nuances and idiosyncrasies of Indian English which the speakers speak it not, try to write it and even though speak they, but ridiculously:

Coming back to Miss Pushpa
she is most popular lady
with men also and ladies also.

Whenever I asked her to do anything,
she was saying, 'Just now only
I will do it.' That is showing
good spirit. I am always
appreciating the good spirit.

Pushpa Miss is never saying no.
Whatever I or anybody is asking
she is always saying yes,
and today she is going
to improve her prospect
and we are wishing her bon voyage.
Now I ask other speakers to speak
and afterwards Miss Pushpa
will do summing up.

A few beginning stanzas of Jewish Wedding In Bombay will state it clearly how entertaining he is personally. On marking the bride sitting before, he can also caricature with the words, ‘Don’t be silly.’ It is a matter of prestige for the bridegroom if she smiles and breaks into laughter after marking him toning her down.

Her mother shed a tear or two but wasn't really
crying. It was the thing to do, so she did it
enjoying every moment. The bride laughed when I
sympathized, and said don't be silly.

Her brothers had a shoe of mine and made me pay
to get it back. The game delighted all the neighbours'
children, who never stopped staring at me, the reluctant
bridegroom of the day.

There was no dowry because they knew I was 'modern'
and claimed to be modern too. Her father asked me how
much jewellery I expected him to give away with his daughter.
When I said I didn't know, he laughed it off.

The final stanzas of the poem tell the rest story of his marriage and the marriage party. After the  marriage comes off, they go to the world class studio reputed for making wedding photographs:

Anyway as I was saying, there was that clapping and later
we went to the photographic studio of Lobo and Fernandes,
world-famous specialists in wedding portraits. Still later,
we lay on a floor-matress in the kitchen of my wife's
family apartment and though it was part midnight she
kept saying let's do it darling let's do it darling
so we did it.

More than ten years passed before she told me that
she remembered being very disappointed. Is that all
there is to it? She had wondered. Back from London
eighteen months earlier, I was horribly out of practice.

During our first serious marriage quarrel she said Why did
you take my virginity from me? I would gladly have
returned it, but not one of the books I had read
instructed me how.

But there comes a time in his life when the wife after the quarrel asks him to return her virginity. The poet too outwits her with his readymade answers. There is no book at all read in London or India instructing him to do if it is possible. Even the foolish will smile on hearing him that an educated man can reason as thus which is but the joy of reading him.

We may take the poem Marriage. Lovers when they marry feel it that they will never separate from each other as it was in their fate and God arranged it in heaven and they are perhaps the most lucky men:

Lovers, when they marry, face
Eternity with touching grace.
Complacent at being fated
Never to be separated.

The bride is always pretty, the groom
A lucky man. The darkened room
Roars out the joy of flesh and blood.
The use of nakedness is good.

I went through this, believing all,
Our love denied the Primal Fall.
Wordless, we walked among the trees,
And felt immortal as the breeze.

However many times we came
Apart, we came together. The same
Thing over and over again.
Then suddenly the mark of Cain  
Began to show on her and me.

Why should I rain the mystery
By harping on the suffering rest,
Myself a frequent wedding guest?

The bride is always pretty and the bridegroom a lucky man and Nissim keeps relishing upon, drawing and deriving pleasures oblivious of the suffering to make inroads, displeasure and discomfort to grow and the cracks to figure in mutual relationships finally readying for a departure from all that as love does not remain love at that time, attraction dispels it, goes away. But as he himself is a wedding guest of several occasions and festivities who had been a party to it and saw them as a witness, how can he distract others as per his observation? After having married, how can he, don’t marry and be happy?

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher by Nissim Ezekiel is an elaboration of the Coleridgean dictum, ‘The best poets wait for the best words’ and its remixing with the art of making love, ornithology and poetry.

To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering -
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.

The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart's dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.

Let us mark the Indian patriot’s English, the Gandhian freedom fighter’s. The patriot  as a Ram-bhakta hanuman of Gandhi gives his opinions and views in the likewise manner. Few of the freedom fighters were educated, but most of them were lathi-wielding fellows, strangely dedicated and devoted to Gandhi. If Gandhi says, stand on your feet, they will stand up to do that, but meaning he it not, but asking to be self-reliant. A vegetarian, teetotaler non-violent and truthful will fail it even the hanuman in its bhakti to Ram-Sita as the Gandhian patriots did they. His references to Mahatma Gandhi, Nehruji and Indira Behn all hint to loyalty, political hierarchy; a politics of the icons and scions. If to take him, the modern man is a drunkard as he takes cold drinks and wine instead of health-giving lassi. But the Gandhian freedom fighter knows it not that the Indian milkman mixes too much water into milk, not even the tap water, but the pond  water and blotting paper as for the skim, fat and cream and sells the adulterated milk and the same today are turning into foolish ministers.

 I am standing for peace and non-violence.
 Why world is fighting fighting
 Why all people of world
 Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
 I am simply not understanding.
 Ancient Indian Wisdom is 100% correct,
 I should say even 200% correct,
 But modern generation is neglecting-
 Too much going for fashion and foreign thing.

 Other day I'm reading newspaper
 (Every day I'm reading Times of India
 To improve my English Language)
 How one goonda fellow
 Threw stone at Indirabehn.
 Must be student unrest fellow, I am thinking.
 Friends, Romans, Countrymen, I am saying (to myself)
 Lend me the ears.
 Everything is coming -
 Regeneration, Remuneration, Contraception.
 Be patiently, brothers and sisters.

 You want one glass lassi?
 Very good for digestion.
 With little salt, lovely drink,
 Better than wine;
 Not that I am ever tasting the wine.
 I'm the total teetotaller, completely total,
 But I say
 Wine is for the drunkards only.

 What you think of prospects of world peace?
 Pakistan behaving like this,
 China behaving like that,
 It is making me really sad, I am telling you.
 Really, most harassing me.
 All men are brothers, no?
 In India also
 Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, Hindiwallahs
 All brothers -
 Though some are having funny habits.
 Still, you tolerate me,
 I tolerate you,
 One day Ram Rajya is surely coming.

 You are going?
 But you will visit again
 Any time, any day,
 I am not believing in ceremony
 Always I am enjoying your company.

The Professor is a very interesting poem of Nissim wherein he caricatures the talks of the geography department retired professor with his ex-student whom he meets by chance. His English is not good, but instead of keeps trying, gossiping and carrying it forward. The middle class vanity, hypocrisy and ego have been taken into consideration. Who can speak in India and how the language employed for? Whether you know English or not, just go on showing is the thing, but Nissim too must know it that English is not spoken in the streets so there is no fault in trying to speak in. But to show hypocrisy is not good and it happens in our society.

Remember me? I am Professor Sheth.
Once I taught you geography. Now
I am retired, though my health is good.
My wife died some years back.
By God's grace, all my children
Are well settled in life.
One is Sales Manager,
One is Bank Manager,
Both have cars.
Other also doing well, though not so well.
Every family must have black sheep.
Sarala and Tarala are married,
Their husbands are very nice boys.
You won't believe but I have eleven grandchildren.
How many issues you have? Three?
That is good. These are days of family planning.
I am not against. We have to change with times.
Whole world is changing. In India also
We are keeping up. Our progress is progressing.
Old values are going, new values are coming.
Everything is happening with leaps and bounds.
I am going out rarely, now and then
Only, this is price of old age
But my health is O.K. Usual aches and pains.
No diabetes, no blood pressure, no heart attack.
This is because of sound habits in youth.
How is your health keeping?
Nicely? I am happy for that.
This year I am sixty-nine
and hope to score a century.
You were so thin, like stick,
Now you are man of weight and consequence.
That is good joke.
If you are coming again this side by chance,
Visit please my humble residence also.
I am living just on opposite house's backside.

Nissim is a poet of overtones, romantic overtones and undertones, ironic modes and their application, humorous chuckle of laughter and mockery. His bouts with mockery, irony and laughter are known to everybody and sometimes strikes, hits below the belly. To crack jokes is the chief property of the poet. There are many facets of his poetry; some discuss him as a romantic, some as a poet-lover, some as a poet of irony and caricature and some as an alien insider which is but the marvel of our discussion. When we read The Patriot, the picture of a khadi dhoti and kurta wearing freedom fighter with a turban around the head and a lathi going dances before the mind’s eye, a Lady Gregorian patriot not, we mean an Irish balladeer in the guise of nor the loyal Irish sergeant working for the British Govt. and that too a patriot of some kind whether the dramatist calls him or not. The Professor is a ditto professor sahib, not the English, but the brown sahib speaking in Hindustani English, not Pakistani, doing the morning walks and meeting and gossiping with his ex-student whom he taught long ago. A retired fellow he passes his time, but not retired from life and the world. The last of all, Nissim too is a lover, a romantic of his kind amusing with his talks of love marriage, romantic gossips, birthday parties, marriage parties, goodbye parties and partying is his job, no life without. In the park he wants to meet stealthily, in the library under the pretext of reading books or exchanging them, a writer of  love letters and birthday sweets packs and gifts. The poet persona likes to go to the pictures and the theatre with her by his side and says it he has not loved a girl.

Colloquial Hindustani English is the central point of his discussion and he takes liberties with it apart from making a cartoon of or imitating the speech with the staggering and faltering sound patterns. The Indian users of the English language like to pronounce wrongly without taking into note right pronunciation. Men and their manners, the wide world and its varying ways, societal living standards and talks, modernity and its impact, this forms a major chunk of his poetry. Basically, a funny man he delves into the funnier aspects of living. How to joke and poke into another’s domain is the subject-matter of his art; his chief priority. To read him is to burst into a laughter and with him poetry turns into a laughing matter, full of fun, smiles, comics, joviality, turns and twists all for pleasure sake, not to be serious, but to be light. But somewhere he attracts our attention towards poverty, backwardness, illiteracy, underdevelopment, human misery, pity and pathos. 

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