Nissim Ezekiel’s poem ‘Background, Casually’ is one of his most known poems. If ‘Night of the Scorpion’ is a popular anthology piece, this poem is more keenly read by the more academic readers of his poetry. The poem’s significance to Ezekiel’s oeuvre lies partly in it being an autobiographical poem which is seen to indicate crisply his ‘official view of life’ as it were (whatever that means). Ezekiel’s general tendency in his poems to be more communicative than be imagistic is evident here. Similarly, the ironic tone that swings between whipping the self and the society around it is also on abundant display in this poem. Some of the other recurrent motifs of Ezekiel’s poetry that we see in this poem are:
* finding satisfaction in limited ambition
* a set of experiences stated as providing deep insights
* use of unrhymed metrical lines
* probing the question of identity in a firm social context
* controlled fragmentation unlike the modernist tendency of obscurity
The poem is divided into three sections which approximate the childhood, adult and old-age experiences of the poet-speaker. The three sections do not merely present a chronology of significant experiences but reflections over these experiences that draw out lessons on the status of the identity of the self. Allow me to comment, in a rather school boyish manner, stanza by stanza.
by Nissim Ezekiel
A poet-rascal-clown was born,
The frightened child who would not eat
Or sleep, a boy of meager bone.
He never learned to fly a kite,
His borrowed top refused to spin.
Notice the references to facts twisted to accommodate the present assessment of that fact. The first line for example is the present valuation of the past. The line also introduces a preference made all through the poem: the self perception of the speaker as a poet. This self-perception is immediately attached to irony with the addition of rascal and clown. From irony, this present perception of the past slides to self-pity, a rather clever ploy that corners the readers sympathy as well as explains away the lack of heroism in the self. The reader is required to agree that this ‘boy of meager bone’ with not even the skill to fly a kite, is not destined to achieve anything too noble; so the assertions of self-satisfactions at the poetic achievements of this self in the third section of the poem come to be accepted easily.
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.
The second stanza slips from third to first person. In the 2nd and 3rd stanzas the multicultural mix of the society in which the speaker has grown up is introduced through the self-pity ploy. These two stanzas insistently introduce a major strand of this poem’s thematic: identity. The challenge to coherent formation of identity is indicated here as related to the mixing of cultures that are not devoid of intolerance toward one another. Amid the unhappy school life, a poetic career has without much ado announced itself: ‘That year I won the scripture prize’. This line is suggestive of the inclination of the child.
At home on Friday nights the prayers
Were said. My morals had declined.
I heard of Yoga and of Zen.
Could 1, perhaps, be rabbisaint?
The more I searched, the less I found.
Twentytwo: 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 last line of the 4th stanza is typical of Ezekiel in the use of antithesis. Intimations of failure are always around the corner in his autobiographical poems. The above two stanzas squeeze a long duration into rapidly moving lines. Growing up amid diverse influences the speaker expands the base of the incoherence of his identity to include yoga, zen, jewish theology. The alliterative line ‘philosophy, poverty and poetry’ burdens the experiential statement with the load of a life-time inclination. Many of Ezekiel’s poems suggest this inclination: ‘Enterprise’ for example. Usually they indicate symptomatically the poetic credo of this poet: to treat personal experiences philosophically to produce poetic significance.
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 cargoship
Taking French guns and mortar shells
To IndoChina, scrubbed the decks,
And learned to laugh again at home.
The second section of the poem brings in adult experiences as suggested toward the end of previous stanza. Amid rather tedious lines the above quoted stanzas introduce the summary dismissal of the self that recurs in Ezekiel’s poems. The sense of failure is recurrent. But Ezekiel usually positions these statements strategically in the poems. Their function is not to state to the reader the sense of the speaker’s disillusion. These lines are positioned by Ezekiel in such a way as to herald the experiments that lead the self toward the present significance. This strategy is also to be found in ‘Enterprise’. The stanzas also indicate the speaker’s decision to turn away from the metro-centricness of the colonial mentality. The last line could have been interpreted as being puerile patriotism had it occurred in a poem less ironic than ‘Background, Casually’.
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).
A lasting question, something that has characterized Ezekiel’s approach generally, is introduced in the first line of the next stanza: ‘How to feel it home’ is a question raised by many of Ezekiel’s poems about identity. What I want to indicate is that the manner Ezekiel frames the identity question is apparent here. Ezekiel makes out a case for homely feeling as a measure of identity. With homely feeling comes a responsibility. For Ezekiel, this responsibility requires that one not only see ones home in appreciation but also with a certain critical distance. Ezekiel practically indicates the figure of the ‘homely critic’ as the frame of reference. This homely critic manages a stance that is not shy of scathing criticism, yet asserts the value of home. It is thus that Ezekiel develops a critique of Naipaul’s tourist perspective of India in his well known essay that appeared in Adil Jussawala edited ‘Penguin New Writing from India’: ‘Naipaul’s India and Mine’. It is an essay that would have won the prize for walking the tight rope. For in this essay, Ezekiel defends the indefensible. The essay was written at a time when the patriotic pitch was so shrill against Naipaul that anybody critcising him would have sounded like whistling along. Ezekiel maintains a remarkable cool in pointing out the perspectival problem in Naipaul’s narrative. We easily see Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ full of prejudicial whining at personal slight and inconvenience rather than a balanced criticism.
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.
The third section swiftly moves on in life: the speaker is mature now. He is through his experiments. He is ripe with his experiences so that he can now give out his conclusions. That is, within the poem the narration of experiences is now over, and it is time to draw out philosophical implications. ‘The later dreams were all of words’ picks up the theme of poetic career. The poem is now poised to give us a peep into the poetic process.
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.
This is a remarkable stanza which very concisely states a complex attitude to poetry. The speaker puts simply that his approach to poetry is rather pragmatic. The inner and the outer storms are not to be seen as problems to be solved: it is not a measure of ones wisdom to solve them. The wisdom is in playing the fool yet cashing in on these inner and outer storms by making them the subject of ones creativity. It is a pithy way of saying that the poet has to respond through his/her creativity.
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.
These two stanzas, jerkily moving away from the earlier stanza, sum up the speaker’s socio-political stance. The colonial divide between the metropolis as the centre and ‘India’ as a backward place is alluded to here. Staying in India is seen as a committed move. The ambivalent place of the ‘homely critic’ is stated in the first line of the above quoted stanzas: ‘Indian landscape sears my eyes’. The necessity to assert ones commitment to ones station arises because of the ‘the foreigners’ viewpoint. From their point of view, being in the ‘backward place’ warrants an explanation. The speaker seems to agree that his station is backward, though it is his own.
What I find interesting in the poem is the way it frames the question of identity. The poem quite clearly takes India as the place from which this view is generated. The view that raises the question of identity and the backwardness of the place, first of all, sets up a binary opposition. This binary opposition conveniently sets up two categories: something called India and something called foreign. With this opposition there is a termination of the question. Then the poem sets out to resolve the puzzle. It admits that the ‘identity’ of the speaker spills over a pure category. That is what the ‘foreign’ experiences suggest in the poem. Therefore, the speaker has to point out the ambivalence in the identity of the self – critical yet committed to home. This view at once enables a distance from the totalized category of ‘India’ and an identification with it. The problem of course is that, the binary invoked here deals with essentialisms. The perspective developed in the poem is very comforting in a way, and often is seen as politically correct too. But it confronts the question of identity in a reductive polarization between ‘India’ and ‘the foreign’.