Nissim Ezekiel’s Poem Background Casually: Summary and Critical Analysis
Nissim Ezekiel’s Poem Background Casually : The poem, entitled Background Casually is a confessional and autobiographical poem. This poem is a testimonial to the poet’s innate Indianness and his commitment to India. In it, the poet reflects upon his success and his failures. His love for earth finds an expression in the poem. He affirms his Indianness and the fact that his roots are deeply embedded in the Indian diaspora. The poet has described his background or his past to quite an extent in this poem. His devotion to the country and the city of his choice is just as great as his commitment to his profession. He has depicted the city of Bombay very realistically and with a lot of emotions. The poem provides an example of cultural and social alienation. He was an alien among both Muslims and Hindus.
Nissim Ezekiel’s Poem Background Casually: Summary and Critical Analysis
Summary of the Poem:
The poet calls himself a poet, rascal and clown. He was a scared child who could neither sleep nor eat. He was a lean and thin boy. He could not indulge himself in games like other normal healthy children. He mocks himself at his inability to fly kites and spin a top. He borrowed the playthings from other boys because he was so poor that he could not afford to buy any plaything of his own. When he was a boy, he could not get opportunity to enjoy the games. His poverty never allowed him to participate in games. He was a Jew and as a Jew, he had to face many problems at school. He was sent to a Roman Catholic school where the Christian boys abused him for being a Jew whom they considered to be the betrayer of Christ.
They thought that he belonged to a community or race which was responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He was an innocent sheep among the wolves. The other boys were cruel and of tyrannical attitude because they tormented him at every occasion. He ignored them and concentrated mainly upon lesson. He was a studious boy. He learnt his lessons until he memorized them. The irony behind the other boys tormenting a Jewish boy lay in the fact that this Jewish boy won a prize for being the best student to have learnt scriptures which included not only the Old Testament in which the Jews believe but also the New Testament in which the Jews do not believe , but the Christians do believe . But it was only a momentive joy because the very next moment, a Muslim boy of well-built body, slapped and beat the poet.
The poet describes Hindus as great bullies. Though they were under nourished, still, they were very strong and terrorized the poor Jew boy. He too had a condescending attitude towards them for their prepositions were always wrong and in his opinion they were inactive and lazy dullards. He relates an incident where he had to defend himself with a knife, during a very noisy fight. Talking of his background the poet then says that the people expected him to be a Rabbi, but upon self – analysis he realized his own wickedness. He tried his best to become a nobler by listening to Hindu’s yogis and Jewish priests, but nothing could make him a better person than he was.
He realized that he lacked the dedication that was the most important part of becoming a priest. He lacked the religious fervour. Time passed by and his school days were finally over. When he was twenty – two years of age, a family friend helped to send him to England for further studies, by paying his fare. He tells us of his days spent in England in words that have become famous are oft – quoted. He describes that in London philosophy, poverty and poetry were his three companions who shared his basement room. He found the city to be very good and hospitable. Here he observed the external world with zest and curiosity. He has used the image of basement room in several poems.
Ezekiel spent two very hard and cheerless years in London. He was all alone, and didn’t involve himself in the active life around himself. Finally he realized that he was a failure, and made up his mind to return to India. Since he didn’t have financial resources to afford a fare back to India, he worked as a menial servant on a cargo ship, carrying French guns and mortars to India, in return for his passage. He scrubbed the ship and did numerous other lowly jobs on the ship, but he was happy and contented. So after two years, he returned to India, a complete failure.
He had studied a little philosophy, but, it was of no use to him in real life, it only added to his bewilderment and perplexity. He had the immense task of adjusting himself to his circumstances and to make the best of the situation he had landed himself. He was at odds as to what to do with himself, and how to feel at home. Despite all the difficulties, the poet still has a very strong attachment to India, his country by choice, and the city of Bombay, where he resided. In due course of time, he married, the worst folly that, he says, ever made. He frequently changed jobs and professions.
This is the background that he writes about in his poem. But there is a lot that has to be told about his background. To make a more comprehensive picture of his background, he must write about his experiences as a child, and also of his ancestry. So, he again delves into his past. He informs us that his ancestors were oil pressers. They pressed oil out of seeds to earn their living. He remembers the bullock, he would observe as a child, moving round and round, driving the machine that crushed oil from the seeds. He also remembers the Major of the British army who recounted frightening stories of the Boer war in Africa, which frightened the child Nissim and gave him nightmares, where he dreamt that a fierce man had bound his hand and feet.
These were his childhood dreams, but now as a child, he dreams, as a poet should, only of words. He does not realize that the words can deceive. He kept on writing poetry till such time that he had completely lost his grip on reality and thus missed the worldly prize. He was a failure in the real world, as he dwelt in the imaginary world of the poet, and thus was not prepared for the harsh realities of life. He reiterates that if he is given a second chance, he would not make the same mistake twice. Still, despite all the disappointments and bitterness, he strives for a clearer vision, and deeper understanding of life and its varied problems.
Some may consider him a fool, but he believes that wisdom lies in making the best use of one’s opportunities. He, therefore, makes best use of his internal as well as external experiences, and writes about his emotions and passions, frustrations and failures, as well as the problems that real life had in store for him. The poem is made up of all these various experience that the poet has gone through in his life.
Nissim’s devotion to the country and the city of his choice is just as great as his commitment to his profession. The climate is too hot for him – it sears his eyes, but he manages to survive the heat and the squalor, much to the surprise of his foreigner friends, who visit him, or who write to him. But he feels that these friends make much of the difficulties, and he feels that whatever the difficulties may be, he has become an integral part of the country and has accepted all the difficulties with grace. He is proud of his country and its environment. He has made India his home, and will continue to live in his chosen city. He has been faithfully recounting the life as he has found it to be in city of Bombay, in his poems.
Critical Appreciation of Poem:
Introduction: Nissim Ezekiel’s Poem Background Casually
The poem entitled Background Casually is one of the several biographical poems that Ezekiel has written. This poem appeared in the Hymns in Darkness, sixth volume of poems. This volume was published in 1976. In this poem, the poet recounts some of the experiences of his life from his boyhood onwards. It is a testimonial to the poet’s innate Indianness and his commitment to India. In it, the poet reflects upon his success and failures. His love for the earth finds an expression in the poem. He affirms his Indianness and the fact that his roots are deeply embedded in the Indian diaspora.
Thought – Content:
When the poet grew up, he went to school. He was not a Christian but a Jew. So, the Christian boys were unkind to him. They thought that he had killed Christ. The Christian boys had not Christian Charity. The Muslim boys too were inconsiderate to him. The poet ironically describes the feeling of religions of communal discrimination in India. The Hindus too were equally unkind. They were great bullies but they terrorized Ezekiel. He looked down upon them, for their prepositions were always wrong and they were dull and passive. One day, he had to use his knife to defend himself in a noisy quarrel.
One Friday nights, there were prayers at home and he was told about his wickedness. He heard the preaching of Hindu yogis and of Jewish priests but nothing could improve him and instill religious zeal into him. In London, he lived all alone for two years. He lived a hard and cheerless life there. He was sad and miserable. He was aware of his failure in everything. Indeed it was a bitter realization. On his return to India he was a total failure. He had studied a bit of philosophy, which was of no use in real life. His study of philosophy added to his own exasperation. How to adjust his circumstances was a serious problem. He was in utter confusion. Next the poet expresses his complete identification with India.
He dreamt only of words which, he felt, could not betray. He continued to compose poems till he lost grip on worldly reality and missed the worldly prize. Opportunities in life made him a poet. He was fully dedicated to poetry as profession. People may call him a fool but he does not care for them. He makes the best use of his inner tensions and frustrations, and also of the failures and difficulties. The poet is committed to his chosen profession poetry. He is also committed to India and to Bombay, the city of his choice. He is proud of Indian environment.
Autobiographical Elements: Nissim Ezekiel’s Poem Background Casually
There is a plenty of itemized biography in the poem, and the background – the past – has been elaborated at some length. The poet depicts his childhood. He says that when he was a child, he was easily frightened. He could not learn the art of flying a kite or making a top spin. He was so poor that he could not afford to buy any toys of his own. He depicts his school days. He was sent to study at a Roman Catholic school where he learnt his lessons by heart but where he was callously treated by his school fellows. The Christians accused him of belonging to the race which had been responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
He recalls the moment when he won a prize due to learning the Old and the New Testament. He was overwhelmed with joy but his joy was momentive when one of the Muslim boys gave him beating. Once when he was being teased and tormented by his school fellows, he used a knife against one of them in sheer desperation. He remembers the lonely moments spent in London for two years. During his stay in London, be also acquainted with a woman who made him conscious of his manhood. He remembers how he had to undertake menial jobs at Cargo – ship to pay the fire to the passage to India. He recalls a Major of British army. He remembers how his carefree and spontaneous manner of writing poetry led to his losing his grip on things and the then decided not to continue with that facile manner of writing but to adopt a more worldly style.
His Great Devotion for India:
Poet’s devotion to the country and the city of his choice is just as great as his commitment to his profession. The climate is too hot for him – it sears his eyes , but he manages to survive the heat and the squalor , much to surprise of his foreigner friends , who visit him , or who write to him . But he feels that these friends make much of the difficulties, and he feels that whatever the difficulties may be, they are an integral part of the country and has accepted them with grace. He is proud of his country and its environment. He has made a decision to make India his home. He faithfully recounts the life as he has found to be in the city of Bombay, in his poems. He has depicted the city of Bombay very realistically and with a lot of emotions, in his works.
Style and Language: Nissim Ezekiel’s Poem Background Casually
This poem is confessional and autobiographical work. It is a long poem which consists of three sections, each section consisting of five stanzas of five lines each . The first section begins in a tone of light banter in the third person. The following lines are partly amusing but largely moving and poignant:
Poverty and poetry, three
Companions shared my basement room. ”
His entire poem is suffused with Indianness. His commitment to India and Bombay which is his chosen home, is total. The poet graphically describes some of the experiences of his life.
Alienation and Search for Identity:
Born in a Bene – Israel family which migrated to India generations ago, Ezekiel is alienated from the cultural heritage of India. The poem provides an example of cultural and social alienation:
“My ancestors, among the castes,
Were aliens crushing seed for bread. “
As a schoolboy he felt alienated among his class mates. He went to a Roman Catholic School:
“A mugging Jew among the wolves.
They told me I had killed the Christ. ”
He was an alien among both Muslims and Hindus. The poet once said, ” My background makes me a natural outsider: circumstances and decisions relate me to India.” At the same time the poet’s alienation from his own minority religious ethos also appears to have begun quite early, as his confession in the following lines would indicate:
“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. ”
Read it also: Poem Hunger by Jayanta Mahapatra