The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel Indian English

It is hard to talk about Nissim Ezekiel's Collected Poems without delving into the subject of Indian English. In his own poetry, Ezekiel uses Indian English as a means to adopt the voices of others, especially when he means to satirize those voices and their points of view. There were many contemporary scholars of Ezekiel's who saw Indian English as a degraded version of the English language and deserving of little literary or academic recognition. However, Ezekiel brought Indian English into the spotlight through very famous and entertaining poems like "Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.," "Ganga," and "Soap."

Questions of class and economic status in India arise when one considers Indian English. Even though English is the official language of India, the usage of English is limited to the elite, who are able to afford English education. Ezekiel brings Indian English, which is a version of English in which many verb conjugations and word order choices come from the speaker's first language, into a serious and academic literary sphere. This, in turn, gives Indian English legitimacy and exposure to those who might have never heard it before.

In "Nissim Ezekiel's Critical Nationalism and the Question of Indian English," Irshad Gulam Ahmed warns against seeing Ezekiel's conception of Indian English as representative of English spoken in India as a whole. He writes, "Ezekiel's [Indian English] is one of the numerous Indian variants of English that captures his imagination and finds a poetic representation in a parodic tone." In other words, there are many versions of Indian English out there, and even though Ezekiel's version may seem astute and funny, it is not representative. Ahmed notes that Ezekiel did not see Indian English as an "autonomous linguistic entity," which implies that he did not see it as a serious language or dialect worth studying. Even more importantly, he saw his Indian identity as separate from the way he spoke English. Regardless of the fact that he was an English professor that spoke English very, very well, he was quintessentially Indian.

Despite the fact that Ezekiel did not see Indian English as a linguistic entity worthy of rigorous study, many linguists have spent their careers tracing the grammatical and structural rules of Indian English. First, speakers of Indian English generally try to avoid "r" sounds at the end of words, meaning they have a "non-rhotic" accent when speaking English. Additionally, they generally make little distinction between the vowel sounds in "cot" and "caught." In a similar vein, the words "hoarse" and "horse" sound different when they are read aloud by a speaker of Indian English. North Indians, in particular, tend to have a sing-songy effect when speaking English. As early as 1986, linguists were publishing studies that compiled their observations on the language.

Indian English remains a point of controversy in India today. Because fluently-spoken English is a class marker, many people strive to speak English as well as they can. In a 1997 study called "Anglo-Indian English," the researcher Gail M. Coelho notes that many people in India have also switched to using English as their first language: "Such research is necessary in India, where, with increasing post-colonial use of English, an increasing number of persons belonging traditionally to non-English-speaking Indian communities have shifted to using English as their first language, and use an 'Indian' language only as their [second language]." However, there are also great numbers of the population who get by with only a partial grasp of the English language because English is their second language. How they communicate with each other has become a kind of language of its own, with traceable linguistic rules and innovative methods to make oneself understood. Because of this, Indian English deserves to be respected as a kind of English, just as much as Australian or American English are seen as being as valid as British English. It is incorrect and even slightly prejudiced to see Indian English as lesser than, say, American English because of the accent it is associated with.

To read more poets who write in Indian English, look for A. K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy, Gieve Patel, Jayant Mahapatra, Dom Moraes, Kamala Das, Keki N. Daruwalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Shiv K. Kumar, Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre in your nearest bookstore or library.