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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '20 & Jan '21



A Postcolonial Approach to Nissim Ezekiel’s Poetry

Dr. Raj Kumar Mishra, Asst. Prof., Department of English, Kamla Nehru Institute of Physical & Social Sciences, Sultanpur, UP


Postcolonialism concerns all aspects; political cultural and social life, including literature and language of nations once colonized. Post-colonialism simply means the end of colonial rule. In other words, it denotes a historical period where decolonization had indeed happened. The literatures belonging to nations like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Pakistan, and Jamaica from the very beginning of colonisation and not just after independence are called postcolonial literature. Postcolonialism is firmly bound up with colonial experiences not with only any specific historical period or date. Thus, Postcolonialism can be defined by two ways. First, it marks the end of colonies world-wide. If this either in spatial or temporal implication, we admit, it means that we are going to delimit the dimension of ‘postcolonialism’. The second, it denotes a multithreaded approach and is generally applied ‘to describe any kind of resistance, particularly against class, race, and gender oppression’. (Theime x) Postcolonialism like ‘feminism’ or ‘marxism’ invalidates unjust power relationships. It argues for ‘social justice, emancipation, and democracy in order to oppose oppressive structures of racism, discrimination, and exploitation’7 by exposing colonial oppressive dynamism.

The present article seeks to give an insight into ‘postcolonial literary theory’ in brief; and the application of this theory to the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel.

During the colonial period, the oppressors had tried to inculcate into the minds of the oppressed class the belief that the indigenous things and thoughts bear no value. Postcolonial literary critics usually work in the anticipation of decolonizing the once-colonized mind. Postcolonialism poses challenge to colonial mechanism of subjugation and as such to neutralize Eurocentric standards. In ‘postcolonial theory’, a note on terminology, more often than not we come across, is needed. Some significant critical terms are Imperialism, Orientalism, Colonialism, neo-Colonialism, Postcalonialism etc.

Imperialism refers to and validates political, economic and military hegemony of one nation over the other territory. It was very lucrative operation. The main target of imperialism was economic and political exploitation. It was in fact the acme of capitalism. Colonialism and military control invigorated imperialism. As such, colonialism is the only one form of imperialism. Imperialism without military control is colonialism. Colonialism aims to achieve control over a nation by indirect routes. That is, the imperialist nation under the pretension of economic development controls the other nation. Today, almost all once-colonized nations have attained sovereignty but still, more or less dependent on the developed nations for economic growth because they are utterly poor. As a result, a financially strong nation exploits the poor territory. This new form of exploitation is called neo-colonialism.

The term ‘Orientalism’ gained currency in literary arena after the publication of most revolutionary, influential and pioneering Edward Said’s work Orientalism (1978). This book inspired Orientals to look at themselves whether they are represented favourably or infavourably in colonizers’ writing. The term ‘Orientalism’ simply means the way West looks at the East. Said writes: “it is the generic term which I have been employing to describe the Western approach to the Orient”. (Said 53)  Orientalism is essentially colonial discourse. Said was greatly influenced by Michael Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge. In this regard, Narhari Kaviraj writes: “The Western scholars realized that the best way to dominate over the Orient is to know it as best as they could. The more complete the knowledge, the more enduring will be the power to hold it. It is this that inspired them to lay the basis of a new discipline called Orientalism”. (Kaviraj 40) Said himself wrote: “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony.” (Said 5-6)

Postcolonial intellectuals try their best to neutralize colonizers’ influence by introducing new themes, language and technique. It can be taken as one of the forms of postcolonial resistance. In fact, they leave no stones unturned in asserting their and their nations’ identity. The postcolonial critics closely scrutinize the distorted projections of oriental people in the writings of the Western scholars. After having the political autonomy, it becomes imperative on the natives to reconstruct or rebuild their own past, psyche, nation on the foundation of culture and nationalism. Elleke Boehmer in her book Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (2005) succinctly gives an illuminating account of postcolonial literature in the following excerpt:

Rather than simply being the writing which ‘came after’ empire, postcolonial literature is that which critically scrutinizes the colonial relationship. It is writing that sets out in one way or another to resist colonialist perspectives. As well as a change in power, decolonization demanded symbolic overhaul, a reshaping of dominant meanings. Post-colonial literature formed part of that process of overhaul. To give expression to colonized experience, post-colonial writers sought to undercut thematically and formally the discourses which supported colonization - the myths of power the race classifications, the imagery of subordination. Post-colonial literature, therefore, is deeply marked by experience of cultural exclusion and division under empire. Especially in its early stages it can also be nationalist writing. Building on this, postcoloniality is defined as that condition in which colonized peoples seek to take their place, forcibly on otherwise, as historical subjects. (Boehmer 3)

Nissim Ezekiel is one of the leading English language writers of post-colonial era. He makes ample use of Indian images, symbols and folklores to evoke sense of ‘nativism’ and as such these poems assert nationalism. His poems actively reflect the warmth of Indian ethos, culture and people. Nissim Ezekiel does not make any substantial attempt in his poetry to acclimatize indigenous tradition to English language. Instead, Indian typical beliefs and contemporary reality of society attracted him most. Out of these raw-materials, he creates new poetry in Indian English idiom.

The postcolonial Indian English poets do not hesitate to unravel the superiority and sophistry of West over the East. Nissim Ezekiel’s anti-colonial attitude can be traced in the poem “In India”. The last section breathes Ezekiel’s anti-colonial attitude to the British who pretend to be gentlemen. The English boss seduces his Indian lady secretary. The section underlines the artificiality and snobbery of the English boss. Both indulge in immoral activities under the pretext of enjoying western music, discussing art and literature –

The struggle had been hard
And not altogether successful.
Certainly the blouse
Would not be used again.
But with true British courtesy
He lent her a safety pin
Before she took the elevator down.                                   (CP 134)

The lines “the struggle had been hard/the blouse would not be used” reveal that the woman had thought the English boss would behave like a gentleman and will offer tokens of western culture but all that she gets is boorish lust, which he forces upon her. At this we feel hatred for the English bosses.

In the third section, the poet undercuts patriarchy. He describes discriminatory treatments towards female –

The wives of India sit apart.
They do not drink,
they do not talk,
Of course, they do not kiss.                                                (CP 133)

Ezekiel makes clear that in Indian society flirtation is only male privilege. The females are not allowed to flirt.

East-West encounter is a favorite theme of postcolonial Indian English poets. In the beginning of third section the poet presents twenty three participants representing six nations to celebrate New Year Eve.

“Night of the Scorpion” is typically Indian and evokes a sense of ‘nativism’ (a tendency to celebrate indigenous themes and thoughts by indigenous inhabitants). The poem celebrates ordinary reality of Indian life. The poet narrates a story of scorpion’s biting of his mother’s toe on a dark and rainy night. It graphically presents mother’s groaning, wreathing, peasants’ buzzing of mantras etc. The poem is very Indian in its context and content. The last three lines form a glowing tribute to self-sacrificing Indian mothers –
My mother only said:

Thank God the scorpion picked on me
and spared my children.                                         (CP 131)                          

“Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.” can be viewed as an example of postcolonial resistance to colonizers. As we know that subversion and resistance are two important weapons in the hands of postcolonial writers. The poem begins in the form of a farewell address. The narrator asks friends to arrange a party to wish Miss Pushpa T.S. “bon voyage”. She is ready for alien land for better prospects. Such craze among Indians to go abroad for better career and future is one form of postcolonial resistance.

Nissim Ezekiel is representative of national identity. He faithfully depicts Indian culture, language, atmosphere, corruption, politics etc. In the pursuit of new poetic idioms, Ezekiel employs Hindi and Urdu words like ‘burkha’ (How the English Lessons Ended) ‘Chapati’, ‘paan’ (Ganga), ‘mantra’, ‘kundalini’, ‘shakti’, ‘bhikshuks’ (Rural Suite) etc.

As a post-colonial poet, Nissim Ezekiel makes an attempt to expose contemporary reality from close quarters. The poet in the poem “A Morning Walk” draws realistically corrupt and disgusting atmosphere of Bombay city. The city in the poem is described as decomposed garbage. His love for natural scenery ironically makes him feel “his blood a sluggish stream”. The squalor chaos and dirt are conveyed by the image of “marsh”. And the irony in the line “His native place he could not shun” suggests that all possible way-outs are closed up for him. In city life, the will of man grows weaker like “the morning dew”. His past appears “like a muddy pool / From which he cannot hope for words”. It all suggests that everything is dull and insipid where nothing can be done of any significance.

The post-colonial poet sees contemporary reality through the glass of irony. Another renowned Indian English poet Shiv K. Kumar underlines this aspect in the following words:
What is truly distinctive about Post-Independence poetry (a synonym for post-colonial poetry) is that it allows irony to play freely around all facts of human experience – social, religious, moral or political.... To the modern poet reality comes filtered through a juxtaposition of paradoxes. (Kumar 3)

Nissim Ezekiel’s use of irony as poetic technique is very telling. Irony simply means saying one thing and conveying another meaning. In most of his poems, ironic tone can be discerned. A few famous verses out of them are : “Hymns in Darkness”, “In India” “The Truth About the Floods”, “How the English Lessons Ended”, “At the Hotel”, “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.” etc.

In the poem “How the English Lessons Ended”, Ezekiel denigrates Indian mentality of treating English as a mark of social respectability. In the poem, the poet describes the tutor and his amorous girl student through several turns of irony. The girl is interested in pornography in place of learning English lessons. Ultimately she was exposed and her parents felt that “That girl will never get a husband!” But finally any how she got married:

A month later she was married
Now she doesn’t need that picture-book.                        (CP 201)

In “The Truth about he Floods”, the poet directs irony against slow officers who are only interested in collecting ‘statistics of the relief work” instead of taking effective relief measures of flood-affected villagers. For students and newspaper correspondents, flood-affected people are mere source of recreation. They go to the site and distribute biscuits among boys and take their photographs. Indifferent government officials blame nature:

The district authorities
at Balasore
admitted they had failed,
but they claimed they could not have done better.
Nature, they said,
had conspired against them.                                              (CP 188)

In the title poem of Hymns in Darkness (1976) irony operates with double vision. In the poem, the poet not only targets modern man but himself also. He exposes self-deception and self-esteem of self-centered modern man by the use of irony –

He knows how to speak of humility,
without humility.
He has exchanged the wisdom of youthfulness
for the follies of maturity.
x                     x                     x                     x                     x
Self-esteem stunts his growth. He has not learnt
how to be nobody.
All his truths are outside him,
and mock his activity.                                              (CP 217)

Indeed, he subverts all kinds of hypocrisy, tradition, rituals and superstitions in his poetry.

Nissim Ezekiel in poems like “Very Indian Poems in Indian English”, “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.” etc. emerges as an outstanding postcolonial poet. In these poems, he becomes almost a mimic and employs ‘subversion by imitation’ or ‘mimicry’ technique, an important mode of resistance for nationalists. It is a favorite mode for misshaping English language around the world today among postcolonial writers. His ‘Indian English’ poems are remarkable because they reflect typical post-colonial cross cultural situation. The English used in these poems is certainly one of the varieties of English (Standard). This new form of English is alien to foreigners but we Indians are at ease. Nissim Ezekiel ‘the first modern poet’(Mehrotra  9) wrote these poems perhaps in compliance with Chinua Achebe’s call  he had once made for African writers :

He (African writer) should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.... But it will have to be a new English, Still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings. (Culture and Imperialism 78)

In “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.”, Ezekiel uses rambling pointless monologue. The farewell address begins in eulogy, but in middle lapses into a detail about the speaker’s tour to Surat:

Her father was renowned advocate
in Bulsar or Surat,
I am not remembering now which place.

Surat? Ah, yes,
Once only I stayed in Surat
with family members ....                                           (CP 190)

Such aberrations certainly lend informal touch to the speech, but it is difficult to sense by the norms and limits of Standard English. Such speech rhythm and tempo is typically Indian because Indians are said to ‘talk quickly, think quickly, move quickly’, (Rao 6) Raja Rao writes.

Postcolonial writers to conceive independent national identity concentrate on developing a language which is indigenous at both semantic and formal levels. In ‘Indian English’ poems, Ezekiel tries to capture the very flavour of common Indian speech by changing the Standard English syntax to suit the indigenous speech. Thoughts in these poems are directly translated into English from common Indian speech –

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.                       (CP 239)

In ‘Indian English’ poems, Ezekiel uses continuous from of tense unnecessarily which is not valid in Standard English but Indian users frequently violate. For example –

“I am standing for peace ....”
“I am simply not understanding”.                                      (CP 237)
“I am always always appreciating the good spirit”.
“You are all knowing ....”
“I am not remembering ....”                                                 (CP 190-191)

The use of collocations is certainly culture bound. It is outcome of the transfer of language into English usesd in India. For instance – “Our dear sister”, “What sweetness is in Miss Pushpa”.

To conclude, I can say that aberrations from the Standard English are decisive points to be called Indian English. About the postcoloniality in Ezekiel, Sanjit Mishra writes, “The post-colonial Indian poetry in English owes much to him because his ideas, attitudes and perceptions of life have become almost synonymous with the plurality of the Indian ethos”. (Mishra 154)  His themes context and use of Indian English Idioms, Indian speech rhythm and tempo identify him with postcolonial poetry.



Works Cited:

Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Oxford : OUP, 2005 (First Indian edition 2006). Print.
Ezekiel, Nissim. Collected Poems. Oxford : OUP, 1989 (Second Indian edition 2005). Print.
Kaviraj, Narahari. What is Postmodernism? Kolkata: K P Bagchi and Company, 2005. Print.
Kumar, Shiv K. Contemporary Indian Literature. New Delhi: Manohar Publications, (in collaboration with Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla), 1992. Print.
Mehrotra, A.K. Twelve Modern Indian Poets. Oxford: OUP, 1992. Print.
Mishra, Sanjit. The Poetic Art of Nissim Ezekiel. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2001, p.154.
Rao, Raja. “Foreward” to Kanthapura. Delhi: Hind Pocket Books, n.d. Print.
Said, Edward. Orientalism, Penguin, 1995. Print.
------------ Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Theime, John. Post-colonial Studies: The Essential Glossary. London: Arnold, 2003. Print.