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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2013



D C Chambial

I K Sharma’s Humor and Wit: A Deconstructive Study of
‘The White Ants,’ ‘Cockroach,’ ‘Mosquito,’ and ‘Termites’


Dr I.K. Sharma is a well-known name in the domain of Indian English poetry as a major contemporary poet. He appeared on the scene with the publication of his book, The Shifting Sand-dunes, in 1976 and since then he has been continuously enriching IEP, via The Native Embers (1986), Dharamsala and Other Poems (1993), Camel Cockroach, and Captains (1998), My Lady, Broom and Other Poems (2004), and End to End (2008). His earlier published books (before 2000) were out of print and not available to the students/scholars of IEP, in general; and of his poetry, in particular. So, a dire need of his all books put in one collection was growing stronger and stronger; and, it is met with the publication of Sharma’s Collected Poems in 2010. Book Enclave, by publishing it, has done a service to the IEP.

I have gone through all poems of Dr Sharma not only in the present edition but in their previous “small press” publications also. His humour and wit, in his poetry, have always charmed me most. After I received the present edition, and went through it carefully, I was again drawn towards the predominant characteristics of his poetry, humour and wit, and elected to do a paper on this theme. My objective, in this paper, shall be to study his four poems – ‘White Ants’ from The Shifting Sand-dunes, ‘Cockroach’ from Camel, Cockroach, and Captains, ‘Mosquito’ from his fifth collection – My Lady, Broom and Other Poems, and ‘Termites’ from End to End – his  last collection. What attracted me most is the choice of subjects that are universally destructive and greatly despised by one and all. IK Sharma has chosen these subjects, may be for eliciting humour out of them with his poetic treatment in their caricature, at the same time also infusing wit in them.

The word “humour” is derived from the Latin word “humor” – humid, and was originally applied in pathology and physiology to denote body liquids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. It came to be associated with laughter (or the comic mode), in literature, very late in the early eighteenth century (Cuddon 433-34). The term “wit” has evolved from the common-sense in the Middle Ages, ‘intelligence’ or ‘wisdom’ during Renaissance Period, ‘fancy’ in the 17th century to “intellectual brilliance and ingenuity” in the post T.S. Eliot period (Cuddon 1045). Now it is the latest suggestion that is accepted and honoured by all. However, Abrams, specifically, sums up: “Both ‘wit’ and ‘humor’ now denote species of comic: any element in literature that is designed to amuse or to excite mirth in the reader or audience” (179).

‘White Ants’ (34) are very small insects that draw man’s attention towards them only when they wreak havoc on some very useful and valuable material things belonging to human beings; otherwise, remain unnoticed. There have been great poets and writers: their attention and imagination was never drawn towards this hellish insect, but Dr Sharma spins a poem on them. The poem is written in four stanzas; each comprising four lines.  The first stanza describes how the poet/persona finds a large number of white ants in his study. The protagonist notices them when he visits his reading room and finds there “an army of ants / white”. He had never anticipated that his books kept on a shelf will ever become the object of their voracious hunger. Their presence in the study gave him not only a shock but also surprise. He saw them “marching out of unknown cracks” on the shelf. How they reached there is the great wonder for the persona. The greatest wonder came when he saw that they had attacked his books “eating its way through covers, spines.” His books, that he had very carefully selected, preserved, and placed in his study for his future use, were completely destroyed by these abject creatures.

He begins to inspect and assess the damage done to his wealth of books, in the second stanza. He finds that “Book after book has become its feed”. All those books stacked on the shelf had fallen prey to the assault of these white ants. These books, once a store house of knowledge, have been rendered to “mere perforated sheets” – useless one. In the very next line the poet becomes witty and infuses animal attributes to these inanimate books. He comments that these books “have lost their knees, bones, and all” form and worth, like some human being who meet with a fatal accident or/and crushed by some heavy vehicle. Thereafter, the “perforated sheets”, of these books, have been likened to “bricks of a decaying hall”, lying scattered all around. As the bricks of a falling mansion fall apart reducing the shape and structure of the building to a heap of rubble, similarly, the partially eaten pages of the books, have been reduced to a useless pile of paper and soil. All care and concern of the protagonist has been completely spoiled.

In the third stanza, the poet’s imagination encompasses the whole human history to tell how the white ants have brought it to naught. He writes:
Age after age of man’s history,
his art, culture, and poetry
lie unbound, in bits, without a babble
like remnants of a dinner on a mahogany table.

The poet’s imagination takes a tour of the human “history, / his art, culture, and poetry”, since man’s origin to the present time – “age after age”. Now, he sees before him everything – the works about “art, culture, and poetry” – all lying scattered – without “covers and spines”. He can neither weep nor laugh at the present fate of his library. He describes them helpless – “without babble” – again a human characteristic of anger and protest attributed to books. And the last line of this stanza brings it quickly down, from human heights, to food remnants on a dining table: “like remnants of a dinner on a mahogany table.”  Worthless things spread on a precious table spoiling its beauty. These books that were once very valuable because of their contents now lie like helpless human beings, and useless like the remains of food scattered on the table worthy to be thrown after the meal is over. Similarly, these books have been rendered worthless and worthy only to be thrown away. The destruction caused by these small, boneless creatures is so massive that the loss has become immense for the owner of these books – a repertoire of the knowledge of past ages. 

The last stanza gives vent to the persona’s shock, surprise, and helplessness in these words:
Stunned, I sit for a while,
ruminate over their intriguing style:
agents of death are willfully white,
they crawl, they clip, the bite.

The very first word, “Stunned”, of the stanza expresses sudden shock, as one feels on hearing the news of some dear one’s death or of a heavy loss that leaves one almost penniless. The clause, “I sit for a while,” in the same line, voices persona’s helplessness on seeing the damage done to his property – books collected after exercising years of discerning labour, and spending much money. All his labour and money have gone down the drain, leaving the owner mentally, financially, and physically a wreck and helpless. After this sudden shocking spectacle, he is unable even to stand up. While sitting feebly on the floor, he thinks over the manner in which these white ants have destroyed his books. The witty yoking together of material loss and psychological shock, caused by these spineless insects, is very deft and worthy of notice – “ruminate over the intriguing style” of these ants in which these have brought about this disaster. These small insects, because of their “intriguing” modus operandi, obliterate into “agents of death” in the penultimate line of the poem. Despite being the harbingers of death and destruction to all kinds of things on this terra firma, they “are willfully white”. Their deed/behavior is quite divergent to their appearance. The poet contemplates that these insects have deliberately chosen to be white to accomplish their black deeds and elude or dupe human beings with their façade. These white ants are the most heinous objects in their fake and masked exterior: “they crawl, they clip, they bite.” Nothing escapes their marauding nature; they are the greatest destroyers in their tiny form.

The poem, entitled ‘Cockroach’ (111), appears in Camel, Cockroach, and Captains (1998). It has five three-line stanzas or non-rhyming tercets. The first stanza tells about the appearance of cockroach on the scene. The poet calls it “king of the underworld”, using hyperbole as a poetic device to introduce this otherwise, abominable insect. It appears with the advent of summer. The poet writes that it “surfaces when summer / scrapes the back of the earth.” The adverbial clause of time – “when summer scrapes the back of earth” – seems to echo Eliot’s line in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes”. It is not an imitation but just to create humour, which began with calling it “The king of the underworld”, and make the readers laugh, in contrast to Eliot’s poem that is serious in content. Sharma’s use is more ingenious.

The second stanza unfolds the secret of their meeting place to exchange information with “their kin”. The poet informs the readers:
To pass the word to their kin
they meet soundlessly behind
gas stove, in toilets

It also tells about their manner of arranging a meeting with their tribe – “soundlessly” – so that the owners of the house do not hear or overhear about it. The exact location of their existence or habitat is also divulged: “behind / gas stove, in toilets”. Why do they live there is unfolded in the first line of the next stanza, “where darkness lies tethered in a corner”, because it happens to be an ideal place for their living. In the same stanza, the poet discloses the impact of their appearance on the fair sex: “Their presence freezes the solarplexus / of maidens and they scream to the skies.” How Horrible! As if a lion has appeared before them. The very sight of a cockroach frightens them; and they (maidens), at once, as a spontaneous reaction to the sight, begin to bawl at their top voice.

The picture of the further act becomes more humorous when they try to kill the “king of the underworld”:
If a broom or a chappal rises
they ply between fair legs
and spring for bare skin.

What happens thereafter, I hope, the readers must have had a chance or two to behold such spectacle in their homes. Fear and comedy all merged into one give rise to a queer spectacle; sometimes the “maidens” in a frightful flight with their “fair legs” may lick the ground and break their bones. The “broom” and/or “a chappal” falls far away. The last stanza tells about cockroaches’ escape without any harm:

They frisk but a prince charming, unseen,
in love-garments blesses the Lord:
‘Happy I am at the new site’. 

A reader who goes through the poem cannot but laugh and laugh boisterously picturing the whole scene in his “inward eye” (Wordsworth). N.P. Singh also selects this poem (along with ‘Teeth’) for its comic effect and writes: “‘Teeth’ and ‘Cockroach’ are two minor poems in which the comic impulse is very much evident” (67).

Mosquito is another insect that draws Dr Sharma’s attention towards itself for becoming a fit subject for poetry in the eponymous poem, ‘Mosquito’ (171). This poem has seven quatrains, also un-rhymed, like the tercets of the poem, ‘Cockroach’. If the cockroach is the “king of the underworld”, mosquito is the “boss of the night” in this poem; wit and humour are simultaneously at work right from the first line and continue to tickle the readers till they slide down to the last line.

The protagonist of the poem introduces this “boss of the night” paying “stinging respects” at his toes. In Hindu mannerism, one pays respect to one’s elders by bowing down and touching feet. This “boss” also appears on the scene by touching the feet, though stinging for sucking blood as its food. Any other writer would have called it, for its sucking blood, a vampire. Then, the protagonist tells us that it does so “before feasting on other limbs.” He admits that it does not restrict its activity to “toes” only, but also moves on to other parts of the body for its treat.

It has “hair-thin legs”; with their help, “it soars like a plane”. The simile beautifully pictures it as a plane takes a round above the place where it is to land. This “boss of the night” gets likened to a plane. It apes the actions of a plane: “dives and lands” not on ground, but “on my [protagonist’s] ear or nose. It shows upward movement and now moves from feet to “ear or nose” to tell that its humility can also become authority. It is capable of touching/pinching ears and nose; as often the superior ones, or the school-teachers, had this prerogative in the yester years, (now the law forbids them to do that). But this “boss”, as per its title, has full freedom, authority, and right to sit anywhere it likes.

It is not cacophonous but melodious and lures the helpless human beings with its music. The protagonist tells that it does not come, sit and prick the skin. It “dips its mouth / in the cauldron of witches / before cracking a hole / in my skin.” The “cauldron of witches” [from Macbeth] suggests the bitter sting of the mosquito; so, when it pricks in the skin, it feels like a pungent nip. With this act of our hero, mosquito, the protagonist admits:
I burn, I yell, I fret, I fume,
and strain to chain the monster
with open palm that makes me
a zombie at home.

This quatrain expresses in exquisite terms, the protagonist’s pain he feels after the sting and his rage ensuing thereafter. He strains himself to overpower this boss-turned-monster “with open palm” but of no avail. All his expertise of overpowering it makes him only “a zombie at home.” This last line of the quatrain has two noun phrases: “a zombie” and “at home”. The first one, in this context, connotes mechanical behaviour of the subject, here the protagonist, to drive it away and linked to the noun “home” with the preposition “at”. This phrase “at home” has been used for the purpose of pun: it has two distinct denotations – to be present at one’s place/home, and be at ease or comfy. This last line compels the readers to believe that, despite his best efforts to catch and kill the mosquito; he is made to behave mechanically and creates a comic situation.

He tells frankly about his failure in catching it: “It slips through the traps I lay”. But, the simile that the poet has used is, perhaps, about the black-marketeers, who are expert in evading tax payments by befuddling the authorities and go on getting richer and richer. Notice the Simile: “like keepers of gold, / who know how to cross / the net and grow” fatter and fatter. The mosquito has been likened to these “keepers of gold”; as it also hoards blood in its tummy and grows fatter at the expense of its victims.

The protagonist’s condition becomes pathetic when he tries to sleep after his failure to catch it. He changes his side again and again, but the boss-turned-savage now keeps a strict vigil on him. Noticing the protagonist’s sloth, it, once again, strikes:
I roll back to sleep
and the savage eyeing from above
bounces back to serve me hot
on the same old spot.

As the protagonist’s pathos mounts, the reader amuses himself in picturing the whole activity involved in protecting and attacking, like the hunter and the hunted.

Finally, the “boss of night” and “savage” is christened the “kid of Hell” who “mocks / at every item of creation” of this world and makes, anything available, readily, its home where there is water. The protagonist’s irritation finds articulation in these words of the last stanza of the poem:
The kid of Hell mocks
at every item of creation
that spends hours in a bunk:
a babe, a mother, or a hunk.

The main objective of this poem is to provide humour to the reader with an apt blending of wit and, of course, also to satirize the masters of the black-market.

 ‘Termites’ (194) is another poem on the white ants, in Sharma’s sixth book, End to End (2004). It is written 32 years after the first one. In this poem the poet is more witty and philosophical. The poem is written in two stanzas. The first stanza has two sentences. The second stanza has three sentences to demystify the whole mystery of these “vandals” of the Earth.

The poem begins with the enunciation: “They are real”. The reader immediately smells of the Advaita Vedantic philosophy: only the Supreme One is real and all other things of this cosmos are His manifestations or shadows what is popularly known as Maya – all elusive.  The poet very aptly calls “termites” real, because they exist to turn everything – hard or soft and big or small – of this world into dust. While all things of His creation fall prey to it, it survives and survives very bravely. Therefore, it is verily “real” and all other things that become its food vanish in very short time are elusive or deceptive in nature. These very tiny insects “question the validity of trees / on earth.” Trees are very big as compared to these petite creatures but they prove themselves stronger than the trees; hence, big trees become very small when juxtaposed to these termites or white ants. They have the capability to reduce even giant trees to dust. Trees can do no harm to them. Their “grinding teeth / … make home in the blood stream / of a sprawling Paradise.” In this second sentence of the first stanza, the poet brings out the dexterity of these termites in spelling disaster for trees; thereby proving their might and minimizing the strength and stature of trees.  This is the truth that all see on Earth, but none dared write a poem on them except Dr Sharma.

In the second stanza, the poet calls them “vandals” of the Earth. They are like any human ruffian or hooligan who turns a deaf ear to the rules and regulations of the society and, even, of Nature. Likewise, these termites, they also live “underneath”, inside the soil, always ready to attack anything that comes before them. These, too, do not listen to any one – “have no ears, answer no query/ hear no screams or prayers”, like the human vandals of this world. All questions and prayers fall flat on their ears. They listen to none. They heed none. They keep themselves busy in their sole objective of destroying the things. They seem to follow the karma theory of the Gita – Kārmanyevādhikārsté mā phaléshu kadāchina (II 47). They believe in doing the duty without heeding to any extraneous diversion. Hence screams and prayers have no effect on them. When they set to work, “They block every passage”, like expert planners, lest they are distracted from their set objective/duty of a marauder to cause havoc for all things. Their avouched aim is to reduce everything to dust otherwise the Earth would have had become full of rotten and dead things. These termites perform a very noble act of turning these things into dust and cleaning the Earth of its dirt and filth. They do not brook any outside interference; so, by blocking their passage, they obfuscate the world from their act of eating things: “so no one steals a look / at their iron appetite.” The poet calls their act of annihilation as “iron appetite”, by using concrete and hard adjective, “iron”, to the abstract noun, “appetite” to suggest their insatiable hunger.

The last sentence, to me, should have formed third stanza of the poem. While the first stanza philosophizes, the first two sentences of the second, describe their resoluteness in achieving their goal of decimating the things of this world, this last sentence of the poem tells us about their pace of work: “they briskly work”. They do not have faith in any one – “trust no one”; therefore, don’t ask anyone for help and carry on with their task resolutely “till they have brought the lush vision / of a dream / down to amorphous dust.” Their seriousness is apparent in their firm commitment in demolishing the things from their forms to formlessness. Thus, this poem, while apparently seems to exaggerate the might of termites for generating humour in the poem, in such terms as “They are real”, “question the validity of trees”, “vandals”, “answer no query, hear no screams or prayers”, “they block every passage”, “their iron appetite”, “they briskly work”, “trust no one”, etc. seems to titillate the senses of the readers, in truth, it raises this insect to the height and sublimity of a committed worker, that the present democratic India wants – lacks (pun on the word “want”). The present polity is working like these white ants/termites to eat up the country’s wealth without paying any heed to the queries and prayers of the public/masses; this attribute of the poem also makes it a witty satire on our power-and-money-hungry politicians.

The study of these poems verily shows the maturity of skill in handling his themes from the first to the last collection of his poems. One always learns and matures in one’s vocation and art, howsoever dexterous one might be. This also holds good for Dr Sharma as a poet.  The fore-going analysis of his four poems reveals, in very unequivocal terms, his mastery over this craft of intimate humour and wit with sprinkling of satire/sarcasm in between the lines for the extra-vigilant reader to take note of. Thakur and Singh also observe: I.K. Sharma “blends humour and sarcasm inextricably well” (32), in an article on Mahananda Sharma and I.K. Sharma. Ms Ragini Ramachandra, when affirms: “As we move from one poem to another, we discover that here is a poet who can do full justice to his themes” (IBC 12), but fails to take notice of the quality of wit and humor of these poems. The poems are so well-crafted that no thread hangs loose. In this art, he stands apart in the domain of Indian English poetry; and one hopes for many more such books to tickle the readers and enrich the repertoire of IEP.



Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 3rd ed. Delhi: Macmillan India Limited, 1982. Print. Indian Rpt. of A Glossary of Literary Terms. 1978.

Cuddon, J. A. Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Rev. 3rd ed.  London: Penguin Books, 1982. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Great Books Online. n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2011.

Ramachandra, Ragini. “A Jaipur Poet’s Lifelong Journey.” Rev of Collected Poems of I.K. Sharma (1970-2010). Indian Book Chronicle 36.4 (April 2011): 11-12. Print.

Sharma, I.K. Collected Poems. Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2010. Print. All textual references are from this edition cited after the title of the poems.

Singh, N.P. “The Comic Mode in the Poetry of I.K. Sharma.” Poetcrit 23.2 (July 2010): 67-69. Print.

Srimadbhagwadgita. Gorakhpur: Gita Press, Samvat 2053. Print.

Thakur, Ram Kulesh, and R. K. Singh. “ ‘Sarcasm’ as a Tool of Poetic Communication: A Comparative Study of Maha Nand Sharma and I. K. Sharma.” Poetcrit 24.2 (July 2011): 27-32. Print.

Wordsworth, William. “The Daffodils.” A Cavalcade of the Muse. Ed. A.K. Biswas. Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1982. Print.