Nissim Ezekiel: The Poet of Bombay

Nissim Ezekiel as a poet of “City, Modernity & Urbanity” through His contribution of “BOMBAY POEMS” Nissim Ezekiel :- A poet and writer of city or urbanity. How poet is called as a poet of urbanity. My essay proceeds to define the same. A poet is called the poet of urbanity if his poetry is the poetry of urbanity. The poetry of urbanity means the poetry of modernity and modernity in poetry means vigorous experiments of the breakdown of cultural continuity rather than cultural vigour.

Modern poetry is the poetry of revolt against tradition, and as such there is much in it i. e. xperimental, ephemeral and puerile. So we can say that this dismissal of tradition also involved the rejection of conventional expectations. Modernism often stresses freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism and even anthropological primitivism. It tends to be surrealistic, trying to seek to release the contents of the unconscious mind, often by combining unrelated images in a strange way.

The subject of the modern poetry is the common man’s life, dilemmas, environment, surroundings, daily business of living, carnal irritations, anger and enjoyments etc. suffered by him.

Individualism, its loss, is an important aspect of the modern poetry. The modern poetry present the realistically the doubts, the conflicts and the frustration of modern world. It is therefore pessimistic in tone. After independence, there were many changes, both political and social in the Indian society. Poetry written in a particular period does have influence of the time, Nissim was no exception, and his poetry also shows some influence of poetry of Modern poets like Eliot, Auden and Yeates.

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He did not have any classic background. Jews were driven out of their native land and were spread all over the world.

Therefore he did not have any tradition as far as his religion. Nissim Ezekiel was out and out an urban poet. Specially, a poet of the city, Bombay, his city Ezekiel was a modern poet by virtue of the time he was born in and in which he wrote his poetry. Many of his poems from different collections deal with the modern urban life. He wrote about the‘ every man’, individualism being one of the main features of the modern poetry. But the main aspect of his being a modern poet is his representation of certain urban ethos, the environment, thought, sentiments of the essential man behind the modern urban man.

Some literary historians referred to the term “Modernism” as pretentious, but it braved itself and can be described as ‘a rejection of the traditional and conventional along with a search for ‘new means of expression’ . In literature modern poets experimented with language and form; dealt with new subject matter. Nissim Ezekiel is one of those poets of the post-independence era in whose writings we discover a genuine attempt to harmonize the diverse elements of our volatile urban culture. Ezekiel was born in Bombay and has spent most of his life in the highly westernized 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”. One thing I would discuss here that Nissim Ezekiel is known as an Indian poet worldwide but what alienation and disassociation he had with his schoolmates and all, we can get to know by his some of his “Bombay” based poems . ere I consider the poem Background Casually: The poem is divides into three sections which approximate the childhood , adult and old age experiences . the three sections do not merly present a chronology of significant experiences but reflections over these experiences that draw out lessons on the status of the identity of the self. Ezekiel began with a sense of alienation with the world around him. His poetry has been attempted to establish some kind of recognizable 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”. His failure to get into the mainstream of Bombay’s life is symbolically expressed in this poem. And here I read the first two stanzas. A poet-rascal-clown was born, The frighten child who would not eat Or sleep, a boy of meager bone, He never learnt to fly a kite His borrowed top refused to spin. (Background, Casually)

Later Ezekiel was to write, “I am not a Hindu and my back ground 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”. 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 his life.

Ezekiel is a poet of multitudinous themes. One of the most recurring themes in his poetry is the sensation of oppression (cruelty, Domination) in a crowded civilisation represented by the city of Bombay. It is the “bitter native city” where the hewas 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 marvelous 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”. For Ezekiel this Indian dilemma is symbolised by the city of Bombay. 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 (Background, Casually) 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. (Background, Casually) 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”. 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) 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 (Urban) 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”is touchingly expressed in Urban. 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 (Citysong) A Morning 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 un attainable 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”.

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”. 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 molded 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 (Enterprise) 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 …. … … (Enterprise) 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. (Enterprise) 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”. . He discovers a new spirit of hope and declares his intention to walk the streets of Bombay “Cezanne slung around my neck”. 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 Satish Gujral) Ezekiel as a man was both urban and modern. His poetry is the poetry of urbanity.

He was born and brought up in the metropolis of Bombay. He knew life there only. Urbanity is directly correlated to modernity. Ezekiel’s poetry has this urbanity as its base, on this axis it germinated and flourished . Ezekiel was accused of being ‘a poet of a local habitation and a name’, of only being restricted to the city of Bombay. He could neither think of India’s hoary past nor of the whole of India, which comprised mainly of rural areas. And it is true that he rarely wrote of situations outside Bombay. He depicted the city of Bombay, stripped of its glamour in a realistic manner.

He was totally involved in a situation, which he felt to be a hopeless one too. It pervades his poems very fruitfully. (Gieve Patel in the introduction to Collected Poems) Ezekiel was so immersed in the life of his city Bombay, that he knew each and every aspect of life there. He did not have any inhibition in telling about both good and bad aspects of life in the island. It is felt that no other Indian English poet has given a more comprehensive picture of various facets of metropolitan life than Ezekiel. Gujral’s representation of City

The anguish of the millions who lost their homes and families during the partition of the country comes out in the angry, sweeping gestural brushwork of his paintings. It was here that he cultivated his longtime desire to create accessible works that would portray powerful themes relevant to the masses. Gujral notes of his personal experience of Partition: “My father and I were forced to stay and forced to be witnesses to this ghastly play which repeated each episode with an increasingly grisly ferocity as if aiming at the total annihilation of all sensual capacities in its audience. Depictions of large-scale violence can have the unintended effect of reinforcing the anonymity of the victims of such violence. By focusing on individuals in distress, artists try to reclaim the humanity of people caught up in conflict. Yet, the tension on the Faces shown in these works demonstrates the deforming effects of being forced outside the confines of security. Hiding of eyes representation may means , he experience of violence can be too harsh to face directly.

Instead, artists may take some distance from real events, imagining idyllic alternatives. These alternatives may be couched in fantasy or humor, but they represent a struggle to Escape the immediacy of a trauma. Isolation focuses on individuals torn from the context of their normal lives. These works return to the starting point of trauma, the moment of Violence and destruction, Panic and pain, confusion and conflict are combined in these desperate images.

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Nissim Ezekiel: The Poet of Bombay. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

Nissim Ezekiel: The Poet of Bombay
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